In Western societies it is often said that religion and politics don’t mix. Europe, in particular, stands aghast at a world where spirituality and power go hand-in-hand and where elders are part of the political and religious structure. So the question as to whether Jesus was exclusively a religious leader or a politician is one that would sound absurd to people in much of the world.
But take a look at Denis Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal – the best of the so-called Jesus films – and you’ll get a sense of how absurd it is to separate the politician from the religious figure. Canadian actor Daniel Coulombe (Lothaire Bluteau) plays Jesus in a passion play set in the grounds of Montreal’s St Joseph’s Oratory. The traditional story is retold via late 20th-century biblical studies – which involves lots of demythologising of Jesus alongside an astute portrayal of the first-century political context (read some Dominic Crossan for a contemporary version). The play is a popular success but causes huge controversy among the clergy of the church leading to cancellation, a cast protest, an illicit performance. Violence ensues.
The crux of the film is the transformation of Daniel into Jesus as the film unfolds. As he researches Jesus’ life and reenacts that life in the play, the events of Daniel’s own life show startling parallels to key scenes in Jesus’ life: the turning over of tables in the TV audition, breaking bread for the audience, the trial in the Montreal court, the temptation by Mireille’s lawyer (who takes Daniel/Jesus to the top of a Montreal skyscraper and shows him all he could possess). All of these have their basis in scripture as episodes form Jesus’ life.
Daniel’s own identity is merged into Jesus’. This Jesus is not the sacred punchbag of The Passion of the Christ, or the beatific vision of holiness performed by blue-eyed Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus de Montréal is a scrawny, passionate Jesus who overturns injustice and challenges his contemporary society, proclaiming coming judgement. But at the same time, he models a sensitive Jesus who builds a small, if eccentric, community around mutual affection, table sharing and love. Jesus of Montreal/Daneil Coulombe makes people both reflect on who they are and fall at his feet in devotion.