In Montreal, an unknown actor named Daniel is hired by a Roman Catholic site of pilgrimage (“le sanctuaire”) to present a Passion play in its gardens. The priest, Father Leclerc, requests Daniel “modernize” the classic play the church has been using, which he considers dated.
Despite working with material others consider to be cliché, Daniel is inspired and sets out on intensive academic research, consulting archaeology to check the historicity of Jesus and drawing on alleged information on Jesus in the Talmud, using the Talmud name Yeshua Ben Pantera for Jesus, whom he portrays. He also includes arguments that the biological father of Jesus was a Roman soldier, who left Palestine shortly after impregnating the unwed Mary. Daniel assembles his cast, discovered from low-profile and undesirable employment, and moves in with two, Constance and Mireille.
When the play is performed, it receives rave reviews from critics, but is regarded as unconventional and controversial by Father Leclerc, who angrily distances himself from Daniel. Daniel’s life is further complicated when he attends one of Mireille’s auditions. Mireille is told to remove her top, causing an outburst from Daniel in which he damages lights and cameras.
He begins to face charges for property damage. As the higher authorities of the Roman Catholic Church continue to strongly object to his Biblical interpretation, security forcefully stops a performance. The audience and actors object to the stoppage and Daniel is injured in an ensuing accident.
Jesus of Montreal (French: Jésus de Montréal) is a 1989 French Canadian comedy-drama film written and directed by Denys Arcand, and starring Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening and Johanne-Marie Tremblay. The film tells the story of a group of actors in Montreal who perform a Passion play in a Quebec church, combining religious belief with unconventional theories on a historical Jesus. As the church turns against the main actor and author of the play, his life increasingly mirrors the story of Jesus, and the film adapts numerous stories from the New Testament.
The film came out to critical acclaim and won numerous awards, including the Genie Award for Best Picture and the Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Critics in the Toronto International Film Festival have regarded the film to be one of the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time.
The film was shot with mobile cameras on location in Montreal, which has many churches against its skyline and has been “a center of Catholicism since its beginnings”. Arcand stated he often shot Montreal from a distance or from the air to represent God viewing the city.
He claimed that while French Canadian churches in Montreal denied permission to shoot inside their buildings, an English language Catholic church allowed the crew to use its space. He said this was because although church members asked to see the screenplay, they didn’t speak French and needed money from the rental. Some scenes were shot near Saint Joseph’s Oratory. A substantial amount of theatrical blood was required for the Passion play scenes.
Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Directed by: Denys Arcand
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Rémy Girard, Robert Lepage, Pauline Martin, Véronique Le Flaguais, Jean-Louis Millette
Screenplay by: Denys Arcand
Production Design by: François Séguin
Cinematography by: Guy Dufaux
Film Editing by: Isabelle Dedieu
Costume Design by: Louise Jobin
Set Decoration by: Frances Calder, Simon La Haye
Art Direction by: François Séguin
Music by: Jean-Marie Benoît, François Dompierre, Yves Laferrière
Distributed by: Cineplex Odeon Films, Orion Classics
Release Date: May 17, 1989