Denys Arcand's "Jesus of Montreal" suffers from a lethal case of Block That Allegory. Structured to follow the Stations of the Cross, the film is a satirical bouillabaisse with the Church, the theater and modern advertising as some of its topics. It features its own uncompromising, self-aggrandizing Christ, a Mary Magdalene who walks on water (through the magic of special effects) to sell perfume, even an entertainment lawyer who devilishly tempts the actor Christ with a variety of methods for cashing in on his success, including attaching his name to a cookbook.
"Jesus of Montreal" is a movie from a director with intelligence and refined sensibilities. (In this country, the Canadian's best-known work is "The Decline of American Civilization.") In fact, it's entirely possible that his sensibilities are too rarefied. The variations on the Christ story are never less than clever, sometimes quite damningly so. But they're labored too and, on occasion, painfully obvious.
The picture, which is set in Arcand's home base in Montreal, begins when Father Le Clerc (Gilles Pelletier), a faltering Catholic priest, asks Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), a frail but passionate young actor, to update a version of a passion play that the pastor stages every year. The piece is a classic, the priest assures him, but in recent years attendance has dropped off. It needs modernization, he tells the artist, something to give it a renewed relevance.
Given this mandate, Daniel seeks out the latest historical information on the life of Christ and, together with his cast of seasoned actors -- who come, variously, from their jobs as soup kitchen attendants and voice-over specialists for porno films -- pulls his version together. However, once the production is premiered, Father Le Clerc is horrified by the radical license Daniel has taken and agitates to have the show shut down.
In the meantime, the play has become a smash hit, and Daniel is the toast of Montreal. For all its pretenses to spiritual examination, the movie is at its best as a spoof of theatrical vanity, especially the narcissism of actors. One of Daniel's recruits agrees to participate, but only if somehow he's able to shoehorn in Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy.
The early scenes, in which Daniel makes his casting rounds, parallel the biblical scenes in which Christ meets His disciples, and they're the movie's best. As he collects his collaborators, Daniel begins to feel his way into the Christ character, and we can see the messianic gleam in his eye as he examines the historically accurate drawings of crucifixions. Bluteau is one of Canada's most respected actors, and with his narrow shoulders and fragile, elongated face, he seems perfectly suited to his role. But there's a kind of mopeyness to this Christ; he looks as if what he needs most of all is a nice, long nap. Bluteau lacks fire, and in his scenes with other actors, your eye wanders away from him. He seems anything but the charismatic spiritual leader and the object of obsessive devotion and love.
The rest of the cast is accomplished, but aside from Catherine Wilkening's Mireille (the Mary Magdalene character), none of the characters is allowed to blossom. Guy Dufaux's shots of Montreal give the film an away-from-the-world feel; he helps the director show what it's like to make art up in the isolation of the great suburbs to the north. But Arcand's ideas suffer as much from isolation as the culture he pokes fun at; they seem oddly out of date, as if the film had sprung straight from the heart of the '80s. Once the play is staged -- Arcand makes the mistake of showing us the whole thing -- the picture comes to a dead stop and never quite gets going again. Still, Daniel's martyrdom and eventual resurrection are inspired -- so much so that it makes you wish the rest of the film had been on that level.