Behind the Scenes At a Canadian Passion Play

`Jesus of Montreal' depicts tensions over interpretation of title role. FILM: REVIEW

CANADA'S version of the Academy Awards is known as the Genies, and just as in Hollywood, occasionally a single movie comes along and sweeps up a whole pile of them in one night. That happened last year with a picture called ``Jesus of Montreal,'' which picked up 12 prizes in the Genie ceremony, for everything from best picture and best director to best costume design and sound editing. The movie has also won awards at film festivals from Cannes to Puerto Rico, and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language picture. That makes two in a row for director Denys Arcand, whose previous film, ``The Decline and Fall of the American Empire,'' was also an Oscar nominee four years ago.

A lot of prizes don't necessarily make a good movie, of course, but ``Jesus of Montreal'' deserves at least some of the attention it's been getting, if only because it's brave enough to be different.

The title refers to the main character, a Canadian actor who gets a chance to play Jesus in a modern version of the Passion Play. He and the other performers are encouraged to interpret the life of Jesus in a way that reflects their own ideas. They give the matter a lot of thought, and the production they come up with is serious and sincere. But it's also very different from traditional ways of portraying Jesus, which leads to trouble with the sponsors of the play. At this point the movie takes a strange turn, leading our hero toward what seems to be an unexpected and tragic fate - until he's partly redeemed by a kind of symbolic resurrection, which is completely secular and has nothing to do with the actual Jesus, but reflects an out-on-a-limb optimism that ends the movie on a reasonably upbeat note.

``Jesus of Montreal'' is a beautifully photographed movie - yes, the cinematography by Guy Dufaux picked up one of those Genies - and it's smartly acted by a fine Canadian cast including Lothaire Bluteau and Catherine Wilkening. It's also enjoyable to hear; the screenplay isn't overstuffed with words as the script for Mr. Arcand's last movie was. (Both pictures were written by Arcand himself.)

The problem with the film is that it's too clever for its own good. The plot seems contrived at times, as if Arcand were trying to impress us instead of move us. The story takes on too many topics, from religious ideas to the temptations and sellouts of modern advertising. And the ending is more showy than consistent with the rest of the picture.

This notwithstanding, ``Jesus of Montreal'' deserves credit for moments of great visual beauty, and for being one of the rare recent films with something more than simple comedy or melodrama on its mind. It's also a reminder that Canada has a thriving film industry, capable of turning out movies with a flavor unlike anything Hollywood normally gives us.

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