Jesus of Montreal — lost in translation?

Jesus of Montreal — lost in translation? August 22, 2005

You know how people raised on the King James Bible sometimes have difficulty reading the newer translations? Last night’s screening of Jesus of Montreal (1989) at Granville Chapel was a little like that, for me; apparently there was some difficulty getting the subtitles to work, so the guy in the video booth turned on the English audio track instead — and I realized I had never seen the dubbed version of this film before. A few lines that have long been favorites of mine were utterly unrecognizable.

For example, I began my article on Jesus films for Books & Culture five years ago by describing this scene from the film:

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!”

In the dubbed version, however, the security guard does not say “No big deal” or “Talk about slow”; instead, he says to the woman, “You must be ignorant!” Needless to say, I like the subtitled version a lot better — it’s punchier and makes him look especially thick-headed — but I find myself wondering now which of these translations is closer to what the character actually says.

For another example, I believe the subtitled version of the beer commercial says something like, “We’re the young crowd, we worship beer!” — which some might argue is too on-the-nose in a cultural satire that is already full of religious language and imagery. In the dubbed version, however, the song goes something like, “So put away your fears…” True, this does connect to other lines in the song about the possibility of nuclear war, and the ability of beer to help us forget our troubles, etc.; but it also arguably loses the explicitly religious point of the satire — assuming, that is, that this point is there in the original French.

Two more examples. Because everything was dubbed into English, the significance of the final sequence — in which a delapidated, overcrowded, bureaucracy-ridden francophone hospital inadvertently causes the main character’s death, while a Jewish, anglophone hospital comes across as clean, efficient and professional — was kind of lost. And unless my ears deceived me, I think the lawyer who tempts Daniel and his followers with celebrity and commercial success identified himself as “Cartindale”, which kind of loses the criticism of the church that is implicit in the character’s original name, which is Cardinal.

Getting back to that beer commercial, I wonder to what degree the very 1980s music and the very 1980s fashions modelled by certain characters seemed exaggerated or embarrassing even back then. That is, there are certain elements of this film that feel very dated, but these elements are usually associated with the crassness and vulgarity of commercial art, and its emphasis on fleeting material pleasures. So if they feel dated, it is probably because they are meant to feel dated; but it is still possible that audiences at that time would have been too immersed in the culture of their own time and place to really feel the disjunction.

I have spoken on this film several times before, but this was the first time I had done so since Denys Arcand’s most recent film, The Barbarian Invasions (2003), came out on DVD. So during the discussion afterwards, I got to play a few clips from that film which featured characters from Jesus of Montreal, which was cool.

And FWIW, I’ll be back at Granville Chapel next Sunday, too, to lead discussion of The Passion of the Christ (2004). See you there!

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