Passion plays have been around for a very long time, including perhaps the most famous tourist-draw, the play at Oberammergau, Germany. In Jesus of Montreal (1989; streaming on Kanopy), a priest (Gilles Pelletier) asks an actor, who recently returned to Montreal after some mysterious travel, to update and modernize his church’s passion play. At first, it’s just another acting job, including for those he recruits to play the various parts. After a lot of research, he rewrites the play along modern, critical theological lines (think Jesus Seminar “scholarship”), and they perform the play, moving between the church’s outdoor Stations of the Cross statuary.
Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), both the director and the actor who plays Jesus, begins to find power in the words of Jesus that he speaks. Even while the narration of the passion play relativizes and demythologizes the Gospels, and therefore the historical person of Jesus, he can’t help but be overcome as he speaks the scriptural words. It is an intriguing experiment of a film, because finally it asks the question about the place of Jesus in the modern world, a world of consumerism and marketing, where sex sells and sex sells everything.
It is not only a question of the modern world, but of the modern church. Fr. Leclerc, the priest, never wanted to be a priest at all; he wanted, in fact, to be involved in the theater. He is morally compromised but does not think he can leave the priesthood. But his moral compromise does not keep him from trying to suppress the doctrinal or theological aberrations of Daniel’s version of Jesus, enforced by his ecclesiastical supervisors. Daniel’s difficulty, apparently as one who does not really have a background in the church, is understanding how Fr. Leclerc wants him to “update” the story, but without taking account of the academic scholarship he’s found.
That conflict, between the scriptural story and a modern setting, finds its way to the surface today as well, even 30-plus years later. People and churches are always trying to “update” Jesus, and make Him intelligible to people, as if the problem were with the language of the Scriptures and not with Jesus Himself. This is the reason for the definition of parables as “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning,” or any number of attempts (e.g., the Good News Bible, or The Message) to make the Scriptures more accessible to modern people who have only advertising, buying/selling or, now, social media as their basis for understanding.
In Jesus of Montreal, Daniel and the other actors find out that Jesus is no less “sellable” to their audiences than He was to His own audience. The same people who watch the play at the beginning, with one of Daniel’s friends as the main actor, approach the actors of the passion play with the same platitudes—indeed, with nearly the same words. Those who buy and sell everything cannot understand Jesus as anything other than a product (“Jesus is in right now”); neither can the cultural aesthetes understand Him as anything other than a performance to be observed and applauded; neither can the clerics understand Him as anything more than a danger to their ecclesiastical positions.
But Daniel and the other actors, especially Mireille (Catherine Wilkening), cannot so easily get out of “character,” which leads to Daniel becoming more and more closely identified with Jesus, both in what happens to him as well as in what he himself does. The outcome of Daniel’s life seems to fit well with, and be summarized by, something the Dominican Herbert McCabe wrote: “If…you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed” (quoted by Barry Harvey in his essay “Insanity, Theocracy, and the Public Realm” [Modern Theology 10:1], 53).
No matter where Jesus shows up, whether in Jerusalem, or Montreal, or in our cities and towns, He does not sell or conform to or fit our ideas of what He should be doing. While Jesus of Montreal stumbles over the contradictions between the biblical record and academic “discoveries” (specifically and most importantly, the resurrection) Daniel’s discovery of the power of Jesus cannot leave him unchanged. It may not be a perfect movie, but its struggle with the place of Jesus in a modern time and in a modern city is the same as ours. And perhaps its answer is the same: Jesus doesn’t “fit” here now any more than He fit there in His time on the earth. He simply speaks; those with ears to hear will hear.
Tim and Jay are talking about Jesus of Montreal for the new episode of Saints and Cinema, coming Monday.