Pelagius of Montreal

1989′s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Jesus of Montreal is two hours long, and for the first hour and a half I loathed the movie and everyone in it. By the end, though, I was totally compelled and moved, and I think the movie has real insight into the Procrustean drive to recreate God in our own image.

The basic story is that a fairly faithless priest gathers a bunch of non-Christian actors to revamp his annual passion play. They get super intense about it, of course, led by the guy who plays Jesus, of course (Lothaire Bluteau). There’s temptation by a corporate devil, overturning the tables of the sleazy advertising directors, etc. The newly-controversial play gets shut down and the players enact their own Way of the Cross in a series of hospitals and subway stations.

The new passion play insists that Jesus is just a man like any other. They’re sort of coy about it–they come closest to suggesting that the Gospels might actually be true in the depiction of the Resurrection, but even there, you get a definite flavor of, “We see the face of Jesus when we meet other people and recognize their worth!” But there’s a lot of “Jesus ben Panthera,” new archeological discoveries in the Holy Land prove etc etc, “I am the son of man” but not, for example, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will have no life in you.” Shockingly, a Catholic church doesn’t super want to pay for this diet caffeine-free Jesus, which is why it gets shut down.

But much of the story of Jesus of Montreal makes it really hard to believe that Jesus’ story makes sense if he was just a man like any other. The players’ actions, the way their personalities change under the influence of the passion play, undermine that part of their message.

The players become intensely self-righteous. The bizarre thing about the Gospels is that Jesus says stuff which could easily come across as self-aggrandizing, but he himself never seems that way. The players in Jesus of Montreal, by contrast, can’t prevent themselves from turning righteousness into self-righteousness. They’re self-impressed and noticeably less pacifist than Jesus Christ: Montreal-Jesus doesn’t just damage the ad sleazebags’ property, he slaps an adwoman (nice touch to make it a woman btw) across the face. He makes no effort to stop the riot which takes place at the play’s shutdown–there’s no parallel to Jesus telling Peter to put up his sword.

[ETA: The movie itself is also... sometimes lacking in self-awareness. I meant to mention that Montreal-Jesus overturns the tables at the ad audition because the people running it want his ex-girlfriend to take her clothes off, and they humiliate and pressure her when she resists. That's what starts him table-tipping and woman-smacking. All well and good. But in the movie we totally do get to see the actress's breasts, because the mayhem doesn't start until she's already taking her top off. Classy!]

I’m making it sound like these people are just insufferable, but what they really are is trapped. They’re in a closed system, without the inbreaking of the divine to free them from themselves. They’re the apostles without Christ: searching, battered by events, striving for humility and always sinking back into self-image and confusion. As things begin to turn dramatically against them I realized that I genuinely cared about them–the movie had been working for me on some subterranean level, even as I rolled my eyes and snapped snotty one-liners at the screen (shoring up my own self-image, tbh).

Not sure how the filmmakers themselves viewed this movie. The “resurrection” parallel is so unambiguously positive that I do wonder if they genuinely thought mere human actions are enough to save us. But most of the movie, for me, was an exploration of our inability to save ourselves. And whatever you think of the movie’s theology, the subway sequence, including the gorgeous ending, is deeply poignant on a human scale. I’m glad I didn’t give up on this thing.

About Eve Tushnet

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