SAN FRANCISCO -- What if Jesus were alive today? Would his agent book him on Carson and beer commercials and wrangle a book deal?

According to Denys Arcand's provocative film "Jesus of Montreal," he would find modern survival as perilous as it was in Roman times. "You can't live with Jesus's principles today and expect to come out alive," says the French-Canadian writer-director, in town for the San Francisco Film Festival. "Something horrible would happen to him, like it did 2,000 years ago."

A hit in Europe and Canada that won the 1989 Grand Prix at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign Film, "Jesus of Montreal" establishes Arcand as the enfant terrible of Canadian cinema. His modern Biblical allegory swipes at everything from credit cards to fawning critics, inhospitable hospitals to advertising and the hypocrisy of organized religion.

Although it deals in part with religious sentiment, it is not a religious film, insists Arcand, a lapsed Roman Catholic. "Even atheists like me can appreciate it." Arcand, whose mother was once a Carmelite nun, was educated by Jesuits. "At 15, I abandoned religion and discovered sex and drugs. But even though I left the church, the teachings will stay with me until I die. I'm constantly asking such ethical questions as what kinds of films should I be making?"

He discovered the answer five years ago at age 45, when his "Decline of the American Empire" (or: Sex, Wives and History Professors) was the first French-Canadian film to win international acclaim. In it, the "action" focused on eight intellectuals' disillusioned conversations on sex. Made for a modest $1.6 million, the social satire brought in $30 million.

In his latest social satire, Arcand again examines controversies. "Jesus of Montreal" begins with a priest asking a struggling actor named Daniel to rewrite an outworn Passion play, direct it and play Jesus. Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) picks an unlikely cast of actors/disciples -- one dubs porno films, another models in exploitive TV commercials, and a third works in a food kitchen and sleeps with the priest.

Daniel's radical revamping of the accepted version of Jesus's life deviates from the tenets of orthodoxy. Staged on the church's hilltop overlooking Montreal, the play electrifies audiences but horrifies the church hierarchy, which orders it stopped.

But the play is a hit and Jesus is "in." Daniel becomes the media's new darling, and his life takes on Jesus-like parallels. A satanic show-biz lawyer trys to tempt the actor with visions of film deals, his face on salad-dressing labels and talk-show appearances. "There's always more media space than people who have things to say," says the satanic attorney.

And in a modern version of chasing moneylenders from the temple, Daniel smashes the cameras of lecherous admen, ending the travesty of their degrading beer commercial audition. The actor's refusal to compromise with Philistine Montreal society eventually leads him to modern martyrdom.

"We have learned little since Jesus's death," says Arcand. "In my film, the story of the Passion is a metaphor of an artist and his struggles and temptations."

Arcand should know. He's directed commercials ranging from beer to Canada Dry. "I'm still tempted to make them," he confesses, "and sometimes I sin. The money is astounding for the amount of work involved."

So how did an avowed atheist, who once directed TV soap operas, make such a passionate film about Jesus? The genesis came when Arcand auditioned an actor for "Decline of the American Empire." "He apologized for his beard," recalls Arcand, "explaining the only job he could find was playing Jesus in a nightly tourist pageant. During the day, he auditioned for commercials and erotic movies."

Intrigued, Arcand went to watch the young actor playing Jesus on Mont Royal. "I watched these struggling actors in a ridiculous, outdated play. As I kept thinking of them, 'Jesus of Montreal' started growing."

Arcand, who studied history at the University of Montreal, conducted extensive Christological research and consulted scholars. "I went as deep as I could into Jesus's life," he explains. "I was surprised to find that we know next to nothing about Jesus -- anyone who pretends contrary is a fool. We know he existed, that he was crucified or hanged by the Romans, and about 20 sentences of his messages -- the rest is mystery."

Drawing on modern archaeological findings, Arcand's film raises the possibility that Jesus was really named Yeshua Ben Pantera, the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. Most research, says the outspoken director, "is funded by the church, so theologians tend to be silent about new discoveries which might question tenets of the faith. Jesus's principles are the opposite of any organized church."

Requests to film at Montreal's main Catholic church went unanswered, so Arcand approached an English-speaking Catholic church. "They asked to read my script, but luckily they couldn't understand French," he says with a laugh. "They were desperate for money and rented us the church." After shooting the $4.2 million film, Arcand anxiously awaited the response.

Instead of clerics screaming blasphemy, the Canadian Catholic Church reacted with silence. Arcand was stunned when "Jesus of Montreal" won the Ecumenical Prize from the World Council of Churches.

Despite critical and box office success in Europe, the theological-sounding title discourages some potential viewers. "Using 'Jesus' in the title hurts," concedes Arcand, drawing on an ever-present cigarette. "To some, it means a boring, epic rendition of the Gospel. Probably, I should have called it 'Passion in Montreal.' "

Unlike English-Canadian filmmakers, Arcand doesn't have to think commercial. He points out that he has an audience of about 3 million French Canadians with a potential 60 million more in France. " 'Lethal Weapon' is not my idea of bliss," he says. "I have the freedom to make the types of films I'd go to see."

English-Canadian audiences want to see the latest Stallone film, says Arcand, "so English-Canadian filmmakers make films that will be stepping stones to Hollywood -- a place already full of Canadians."

Now Hollywood is courting Arcand, who's resisting the "Prophet" motive. "I could work there tomorrow," he says, "but I'm old enough now to know how unhappy I'd be writing films for Goldie Hawn or Schwarzenegger."

A Paramount executive once told Arcand: "We don't make movies. We make money."

Denys Arcand would rather make movies.