French-Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand is today in an enviable position. He has followed up his "Decline of the American Empire," a 1986 Oscar nominee for best foreign film--and the most successful Canadian film ever--with "Jesus de Montreal," also an Academy Award nominee and winner of the special jury prize at Cannes last year.
It opens at the Royal in West Los Angeles on Friday.
On the surface, "Jesus de Montreal"--in which life begins to imitate art for a group of actors attempting to stage a very modern Passion Play--is not the picture you would have expected from the maker of "Decline," a ribald, although dark-hued, comedy involving infidelity among a group of academics. Yet the lack of spirituality in contemporary life that Arcand reveals in "Jesus" is but an extension of the emptiness that afflicts the people in "Decline." Arcand says one film grew out of the other in a literal sense.
"The whole story began when I was casting 'Decline of the American Empire,' said Arcand, during a recent visit to Hollywood. "I had been seeing young actors at the Conservatory in Montreal. This one young actor had grown a beard and said, 'I'm sorry, I'm Jesus.' I thought he meant he was a Jesus Freak, but I learned that the only job he had found that summer was in the Passion Play in the cathedral--St. Joseph's Oratory--on top of Mont Real. He had been hired by the priest. Since I live nearby, one night I walked over there to see the play, out of curiosity."
Arcand said the actual production was terrible, but he was intrigued by the setting--that the Passion Play was being staged on a mountaintop overlooking a modern city. He invited the cast to have dinner with him and was further taken by the spiritual identification made by one young actor with his character of Jesus. Although raised a Catholic, Arcand says he has not been religious since his mid-teens. But he couldn't shake the appeal of the play.
"If the subject won't go away, if when you wake up and take a shower and you're still thinking about it, there's something there," he said. "If it sticks with you like that, you should do it. There was something in my soul, my psyche, that wanted to do it."
Arcand became engrossed in studying the life of Jesus. He read archeology and history. He met with theologians. Slowly, things fell into place.
"By 1987 I stayed home, locked myself up and took about a year to write 'Jesus de Montreal.' After 'Decline,' my producers wrote me a blank check. When I told them I wanted to make a film loosely based on the Gospel According to St. Mark, they said, ' Welllll . . . OK.' Before 'Decline' they would have thrown me out of the room!"
Arcand, 48, came by his filmmaking career by accident, he says. He was majoring in history at the University of Montreal when the National Film Board hired him to research a series of films on Canadian history for schoolchildren. A film junkie himself (he says he and college classmates went to New York several times a year, taking in 20 or so movies in three or four days), he seized the opportunity and directed the educational series himself.
As a bilingual French-Canadian, he was able to enter the just-emerging Quebecois film industry in which language has proved more a protection than a barrier; the English-speaking Canadian film industry has long been substantially co-opted by Hollywood.
"I'm comfortable where I am," Arcand admits. "Montreal has 3 million people, which means that it is big enough not to be provincial yet is still on a human scale. I can work in a climate of absolute freedom with nice producers who support me. I make small films that get seen all over--but (Hollywood) is still the film capital of the world. I could be tempted by the right project under the right circumstances."
Paramount was interested in making an American version of "Decline," and to Arcand's knowledge there were at least two versions written by David Giler with Arcand serving as a consultant, but nothing came of them.
Arcand is now weighing his options--deciding whether to keep making small films in French, or try one in English, or accept an offer he's had to make a film in France, where "Decline" was a big success. As for "Jesus de Montreal," Arcand admits that making it has affected him spiritually. "There are values, ethical ways I will stick to," he said. "This does not make me a religious man but I hope an ethical one."