MOVIE REVIEW : Spiritual Reflection With a Twist in 'Jesus'

TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Jesus of Montreal" (at the Royal) is a soaring, multifaceted delight. As seen by Denys Arcand, the quintessential Quebecois writer-director, this is sex, religion, morality and the afterlife, with a twist.

Aware but not unamused, Arcand has looked around him, at a cultural layer cake composed of talk shows, celebrity ads, throbbing TV beer commercials, fatuous critics and loveless love, and cut through it neatly. And somehow, the fun of this lethal satire doesn't disturb the film's essential core of spiritual reflection.

Steelhaired and worldly, Father LeClerc (Gilles Pelletier) has presented the Stations of the Cross every summer for years at a Montreal mountaintop cathedral, but recently it hasn't been drawing well. "The text is a bit dated," he says archly to Daniel Coloumbe (Lothaire Bluteau), the intense young actor he's picked to restage it. But just how urbane Father LeClerc really is--or how cowardly, in public and in private--is one of Arcand's more ironic points.

Daniel is Quebec's actor's actor, its burning-eyed Daniel Day-Lewis, whip-thin and properly messianic. From the acting underground himself, Daniel recruits his four other players with true catholicity, from jobs in soup kitchens, porno film dubbing rooms or, in the case of Mireille (Catherine Wilkening), their Mary Magdalene, as she's modeling for a tony perfume campaign wearing wisps of gauze.

All five actors plunge into research, concocting a play studded with the most up-to-date archeological research on who Jesus may really have been. Under Daniel's direction, their multimedia performance, done outdoors in the rich blue night or in the cathedral's echoing tunnel or beneath a real cross, turns the fusty tableaux into electrifying theater and controversial theory, including the suggestion that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier.

As the scandalized churchmen threaten to shut them down, the show becomes Montreal's must-see event. Daniel, meanwhile, begins to take the values and possibly the character he plays each night into the world around him, with predictable results. At this point, everything becomes fair game for Arcand's swiftly savage edge. Best is the sleek lawyer/facilitator, willing to sit down and talk goals with rising star Daniel: "Jesus is 'in' these days--but you'll have to do weekend talk shows."

Like "The Decline of the American Empire" with dialogue this good, the playing is everything and this cast takes off with it. Bluteau is exactly charismatic enough; unsurprisingly, his most powerful moments are as Jesus--his offstage character could actually stand a little beefing up. Next best is the warm Johanne-Marie Tremblay as Constance, whose motherly heart extends to one of the church's stray lambs.

As the story grows dark, the film's glittering visual images deepen. Guy Dufaux's cinematography, rich as another character, has been a view from mountaintops, from the tops of buildings or airy loft flats. Suddenly, like a descent to the gates of hell, it zooms down into the subway. There's even a John the Baptist image in the drippingly chic "L'Homme Sauvage" subway ad, featuring a young actor-contemporary of Daniel's who has sold out, expensively.

In a film whose invention seems effortless, Arcand's most ingenious idea is his metaphor for the Resurrection. Perhaps he didn't need to take us from person to person quite so earnestly, but in the face of the joys of the mind that "Jesus of Montreal" (rated R) offers and its buoyant afterimage, a little literalness can be considered a trifle, not a sin.

'JESUS OF MONTREAL'

An Orion Classics release of a Canada-France co-production. Producers Roger Frappier, Pierre Gendron. Writer-director Denys Arcand. Camera Guy Dufaux. Editor Isabelle Dedieu. Art director Francois Seguin. Sound design Patrick Rousseau, Marcel Pothier. Music Yves Laferriere. Costumes Louise Jobin. With Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Remy Girard, Robert Lepage, Gilles Pelletier, Yves Jacques, Denys Arcand.

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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