A number of you have signed up to come to our Blog Movie Club discussion this Sunday, January 22, 4:00-5:30 EST, to discuss my favorite Jesus Movie of all time, “Jesus of Montreal.” Some of you who have not yet signed up may be interested in coming once your learn what the movie is about.
Below is a note we sent to all those who have already signed up, where I describe the movie and suggest how to watch it.
And this is the link to my post describing the event more fully: My All-Time Favorite Jesus Movie. Wanna Discuss It With Me? – The Bart Ehrman Blog
Watching Notes for “Jesus of Montreal”
Blog Movie Club, 2023
I’m glad you’ll be joining me on Jan 22 for a discussion of Jesus of Montreal — my all-time favorite Jesus movie. Some of you have seen it already, other not. No matter, these brief notes may be of some help for you once you’ve seen it, prior to our discussion.
To start with, I strongly suggest you see it more than once. The first time through viewers can fairly quickly start to get the hang of it; but the second time through they get much more; third time surprisingly more; fourth time…. There aren’t many movies like that. I bet I’ve seen it probably fifty times (more?). I’m STILL getting more out of it and there are things I JUST DON’T GET.
That’s one of the brilliant things about a film like this. It’s entirely enjoyable the first time: if you’re attentive it doesn’t need a lot for you to “get” it and really enjoy it. My undergraduates see it once and have a lot to say about it. Fantastic. But this kind of film really pays watching and rewatching. For me, at least, I don’t know many films like that. (Among Jesus movies, for me, it’s really only Jesus Christ Superstar; and a lot of that is because I adore the music and dance. But it too is really powerful) (my students don’t know the first thing about it! I find that SO hard to believe)
As you do or will know, Jesus of Montreal is not a traditional Jesus movie that recounts what Jesus said and did in his own day, and it is not in the least pious, although it is the deepest and most thoughtful Jesus movie out there (imo). It’s about a funky theatre troupe in Montreal that is commissioned to put on a Passion Play at a Catholic Cathedral. The old play the church had used for many years was pious and boring and simply no longer worked or attracted an audience. So the priest, a one-time amateur actor himself, asks a young, incredibly talented, but unknown actor to come up with something different.
He gathers up a group of other actors – none of them in the least religious (I have to issue trigger warnings these days) – and they come up with a Passion Play based on their historical research. It is cool and amazing and … it completely scandalizes the church establishment. But … Well, but you’ll see.
So, by way of watching notes. I’m not going to give away the game and talk about specifics. But I will say this: if you’re watching the film for the first time, you need to be aware of how the movie works from the very outset. If you’ve seen it once, you almost certainly didn’t notice that it was working this way at the outset. The way it works: The life and passion of Jesus (that is, what happens to Jesus in the Gospels) is reflected in the lives of the actors. Their real lives mirror the life and ministry of Jesus.
Often this happens in ways that are hilarious e.g. at the call of the disciples/actors (trigger warning!). Sometimes in ways that are very subtle (the opening scene). Sometimes in ways that don’t hit you till they conclude (the temptation; the cleansing of the temple). And sometimes in ways you (I) can’t figure out, or that can be interpreted in a large number of ways. The gags are often subtle but hilarious (temptation scene again) (and, well, Hamlet’s soliloquy).
One very important point. This play is not an allegory. It is a HUGE mistake to think everything that happens in the story has to correspond exactly, in some kind of one-on-one way, with what happens in the biblical stories about Jesus. There are similarities, overlaps, distant echoes, differences, important distinctions: it is not the kind of thing that “this must be exactly that.” It is more like “this reflects that” or “this calls that to mind” or “whoa, that is clearly that” – but the reflections of the Gospel accounts do not consistently work the same way and rarely as an exact replication.
A related but more obvious thing: you can’t object to this movie (as people obviously do to normal Jesus movies that try to depict things “as they really happened”) that this or that is NOT like the Gospels. Nothing in this move HAS to be like the Gospels. But lots of things are. And understanding the parallels, the allusions, the nuanced similarities, in light of the differences given time and place is key (20th century, capitalist, Montreal in the context of entrenched Christian institutionalized religion instead of 1st century, Roman dominated, Israel in the context of institutionalized Judaism).
OK, I hope you enjoy the show. Watch it again if you can! I will. (Twice this semester, since I’m teaching it in my class on Jesus in Scholarship and Film!) And I look forward to talking with you about it.