Friday, May 7, 2010

Jesus of Montreal

(Denys Arcand, 1989)
As always speaking to Quebeckers first and foremost, here Arcand implores his Catholic countrymen to become citizens of the world - not by abandoning their faith, but by opening themselves up to the new challenges that science and scholarship present to the imposed orthodoxies of the church. Significantly, he doesn't bother speaking truth to power - the buck stops at Gilles Pelletier's conflicted priest, with nary a glimpse of the fearsome authorities whose rule he consents to police. By commissioning a 'modernized' Passion Play in the interest of outreach, and placing it in the hands of an honestly questing bunch of secular artists, Pelletier stumbles into a conflict between authority and dialogue; in raw panic he chooses the wrong side, with tragic results. It's his struggle that is at the spiritual center of the film; the performers embody the parallel question of the artist in society, seeking meaningful work as an escape from the equally hierarchical, equally vacant altar of showbiz. Where once Arcand tore a furiously vulgar strip off the powers that be, by now he's embedding his critique in comforting layers of culture, light comedy and gentle irony, and while the effect can get cloying (as in the overdrawn radio commentators), his intelligence and commitment are never in doubt, and the approach serves his agenda well. Classy and controlled, this rather detached movie winds up provoking emotional response through the power of its ideas, which is the right way to do it.

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