Thursday, January 1, 2015

“Jesus of Montreal”: Gnostics to the Barricades!

A friend pulled a 25-year-old film off his DVD rack last night and said I needed to watch it. So we did so. My friend knew that I was (a) Catholic and (b) headed to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. So “Jesus of Montreal” was a thoughtful title to share with me on New Year’s Eve, and I’m glad my friend did so.

Though I wonder if my friend realized that (c) I had been writing about gnosticism this week? Or that (d) “Jesus of Montreal” shows off gnosticism as a failed project? I doubt it.

Denys Arcand’s 1989 film concerns an experimental theatre troupe mounting an updated passion play on the grounds of the Oratory. The premise of the update is that new archaeological findings have revealed earthshaking information about Jesus of Nazareth. These findings and something or other in the Talmud have “shown” that Jesus’s real name was Yesu ben Panthera, that he was the son of a Roman centurion, and that Mary wasn’t so Virgin.

Or something like that.

A character comments that the Gospel stories were all made up by disciples “a century later, and you know disciples: They lie, they embellish.” The message here, like that of gnosticism, is that the Church doesn’t know what it professes to be talking about, i.e., the real story or meaning of Jesus’s life. What has been handed down by Church tradition is claptrap. We all need to discover the “real” Jesus. (Corollary: We all are capable of discovering the real Jesus.)

Asked by a priest, Father Leclerc (Gilles Pilletier), to increase the audience appeal of an annual open-air production about the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) writes a new script based on these “revolutionary” findings. His production, starring himself as Jesus, draws a large, rapt crowd, but Leclerc, representing Church authority, puts the kibosh on it as heretical. When the troupe defies the priest and performs again, Daniel becomes a real-life martyr. The film seems to conclude that Daniel is the true revolutionary, defying orthodoxy, a hero of the people, just like Yesu ben Panthera.

Arcand makes the Church an easy target by setting up Father Leclerc as a cheat and a sneak. In an early scene, the priest is caught leaving the bedroom of an actress. Asked why he doesn’t laicize and marry, Leclerc says he cannot. “I’m not a very good priest,” he confesses, “but I’m still a priest.” He knows he would not be happier or find greater meaning as anything else.

The Church is not the film’s only establishment target. The outrage Daniel expresses in a Jesus-vs-the-moneychangers scene during an advertising shoot seems directed at capitalism in general; and Daniel gets his own tempting on a mountaintop when a devilish promoter surveys Montreal with him from the top of a skyscraper and tries to coax him into big-time celebrity.

This French-language Canadian film made only a generation after the founding of the Parti Québécois wants to be a call for freedom from all that oppresses us, in both our institutions and in our own thinking. What I found striking about “Jesus of Montreal,” however, was Arcand’s staging of the straight-up Gospel scenes.

I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you that I found them the most powerful and moving moments in the film. What is surprising, though, is that Arcand clearly believed this himself. The stagings of Jesus walking on water at night, raising a little girl from the dead, being crucified, and resurrecting are gorgeous beyond description, in contrast with many of the more pedestrian “real life” moments. And in these straight-ahead Gospel passages the music shifts from pop soundtrack to exaltation, especially when Arcand uses the album “Le Mystere des voix Bulgaires.”

Check out the first 50 seconds of this scene of Mary Magdalene running to tell the Apostles that Christ is risen. (Apologies for the Spanish subtitles but the singing voice you hear is Bulgarian.)

By his staging and choice of music, Arcand seems to realize that the Gospel already is the greatest story ever told. No esoteric knowledge, no gnostic revisioning needed, thank you. My friend, a music lover but no Catholic, was so moved by the Resurrection scene that he stopped the DVD on the end credits to note the music used in the Magdalene scene.

“Jesus of Montreal” works on several levels, including as a series of inside jokes about experimental theatre. But a convincing demonstration of “gnostic truth” it isn’t.

In fact, the film raises a chicken-and-egg question applicable to the entire gnostic enterprise. Are there gnostic texts and truths—like those dreamed up in the film—that should force us to reconsider the entire Catholic venture? Or does our own rebellious spirit, a genetic gift from Adam and Eve, look for pretexts to rebel?

Obviously, the producers dreamed up the bogus archaeological findings and reinterpretation to give them good reason for taking potshots at the Church and other institutions. That proves to me only that many of us—maybe all of us—are looking for reasons to go our own ways, just the way our first parents did when they left the garden.

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