The film came out to critical acclaim and won numerous awards, including the Genie Award for Best Picture and the Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Critics in the Toronto International Film Festival have regarded the film to be one of the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time.
In Montreal, an unknown actor named Daniel is hired by a Roman Catholic site of pilgrimage ("le sanctuaire") to present a Passion play in its gardens. The priest, Father Leclerc, requests Daniel "modernize" the classic play the church has been using, which he considers dated. Despite working with material others consider to be cliché, Daniel is inspired and sets out on intensive academic research, consulting archaeology to check the historicity of Jesus and drawing on alleged information on Jesus in the Talmud, using the Talmud name Yeshua Ben Pantera for Jesus, whom he portrays. He also includes arguments that the biological father of Jesus was a Roman soldier, who left Palestine shortly after impregnating the unwed Mary. Daniel assembles his cast, discovered from low-profile and undesirable employment, and moves in with two, Constance and Mireille.
When the play is performed, it receives rave reviews from critics, but is regarded as unconventional and controversial by Father Leclerc, who angrily distances himself from Daniel. Daniel's life is further complicated when he attends one of Mireille's auditions. Mireille is told to remove her top, causing an outburst from Daniel in which he damages lights and cameras. He begins to face charges for property damage. As the higher authorities of the Roman Catholic Church continue to strongly object to his Biblical interpretation, security forcefully stops a performance. The audience and actors object to the stoppage and Daniel is injured in an ensuing accident.
Daniel is first taken by ambulance to a Catholic hospital. He is completely neglected there and leaves. He then collapses on a Montreal Metro platform. The same ambulance takes him to the Jewish General Hospital. Despite immediate, skilled, and energetic efforts by the doctors and nurses to revive him, Daniel is pronounced brain-dead. Daniel's doctor asks for the consent of his friends to take Daniel's organs for donation, since Daniel has no known relatives. Daniel's physician states that the staff would have been able to save him, if he had been brought to them half an hour earlier. In the wake of his death, his friends start a new theatre company to carry on his work.
Authors have written Jesus of Montreal has "many parallels" to the New Testament, and "is so loaded with all sorts of fascinating allusions" between modern Quebec and the Gospels. Daniel is mainly known to the public through "hearsay", and is reported to have traveled to India and Tibet, reflecting "extra-biblical legends" about Jesus. The story begins when Daniel becomes a teacher to his actors, as Jesus was to his disciples. Another actor named Pascal Berger, played by Cédric Noël, praises Daniel as John the Baptist hailed Jesus. Pascal "loses his head" when an advertiser uses his photo to sell perfume, just as John the Baptist was beheaded.
Daniel's outburst in the audition scene evokes the Cleansing of the Temple. In the subsequent criminal case, Daniel has a Pontius Pilate-like judge played by Arcand, and meets a lawyer played by Yves Jacques who offers Daniel profit and fame, telling him "The city is yours," which is a reference to the Temptation of Christ. After he is injured, Daniel is taken to the Jewish General Hospital. Arcand said this is a deliberate parallel with Jesus being a Jew "rejected by his own people," but Arcand depicted the hospital as efficient and better organized than other Montreal hospitals because he felt this was accurate. Scholar Jeremy Cohen tied the Jewish doctor's statement "we lost him" to the idea of Jewish deicide. At the end, Daniel's organs are donated to patients, equated to the Resurrection of Jesus. Daniel's "disciples" also continue his work after he dies, led by Martin, played by Rémy Girard, who is an analogue of Saint Peter.
The idea for the film came to director Denys Arcand after an actor apologized for appearing with a beard at an audition at a Montreal conservatory, saying "I'm sorry, I'm Jesus." The actor explained that he had the role of Jesus in a passion play at Saint Joseph's Oratory. Arcand went to see the play and recalls, "I saw actors in a mediocre production which received shouted applause from the tourists. I decided I had to make a film." The actor also spoke to Arcand about the difficulties he and his friends had in the acting profession, taking undesirable roles in TV advertisements and pornographic films.
As a lapsed Catholic and self-proclaimed atheist, Arcand did not envision Jesus of Montreal as a religious film, adding, "In my film, the story of the Passion is a metaphor of an artist and his struggles and temptations." He spent a year in 1987 writing the screenplay. The film was made on a budget of $4.2 million, with Arcand saying he got a "blank check" after his success with The Decline of the American Empire (1986). This budget was unusually large for a Quebec film.
Arcand saw actress Johanne-Marie Tremblay in Straight for the Heart (1988) and cast her as Constance, one of Daniel's actresses who takes him in to live with her. She reprised her role as Constance in Arcand's later films The Barbarian Invasions (2003) and Days of Darkness (2007).
Robert Lepage, who played René, one of Daniel's "disciples", was a playwright and said that aside from TV and student films, Jesus of Montreal was his first major acting role. He said that the screenplay was complete and detailed, leaving less room for improvisation than he expected.
The film was shot with mobile cameras on location in Montreal, which has many churches against its skyline and has been "a center of Catholicism since its beginnings". Arcand stated he often shot Montreal from a distance or from the air to represent God viewing the city.
He claimed that while French Canadian churches in Montreal denied permission to shoot inside their buildings, an English language Catholic church allowed the crew to use its space. He said this was because although church members asked to see the screenplay, they didn't speak French and needed money from the rental. Some scenes were shot near Saint Joseph's Oratory. A substantial amount of theatrical blood was required for the Passion play scenes.
According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed $1,601,612 in North America after closing on 15 November 1990. In Canada, it won the Golden Reel Award, indicating the highest box-office performance of any Canadian film that year. Film scholar Marc Gervais described it as "a great box office hit in Canada." In English Canada, it was among only three Canadian films to gross over $500,000 between 1987 and 1990, along with Black Robe and Dead Ringers.
Jesus of Montreal did not enjoy the degree of success in France as Arcand's prior The Decline of the American Empire (1986), drawing an audience of 187,827 people, the eighth highest for a Quebec film to date. Generally, the film did not meet expectations in drawing audiences in countries with predominantly Roman Catholic populations, with Arcand claiming using the name Jesus in the title made the subject matter appear cliché. In the U.S., Stephen J. Nichols referred to it as "not-very-popular" and said it was Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ "to dominate the 1980s" in dramatic portrayals of Jesus.
Jesus of Montreal enjoyed positive reviews, with a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars, calling Arcand "the best of the new generation of Quebec filmmakers", and saying "It's interesting the way Arcand makes this work as theology and drama at the same time", adding Lothaire Bluteau is perfectly cast. Caryn James of The New York Times called the film "intelligent" and "audacious", particularly praising the first half "before it gives in to leaden, self-conscious Christ imagery". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote "Arcand has exposed a world that can't recognize its own hypocrisy or hear a voice in the wilderness". Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a "must-see". David Denby of New York felt Jesus of Montreal was "smug from the beginning", but the film was not boring thanks to Arcand's "theatricality and skill". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a C-, questioning the controversy depicted in the film, saying "Hasn’t Canada, in the past 20 years, ever seen a single touring company of Jesus Christ, Superstar?" and claiming the film "flits between the smug and the ersatz mystical". Hal Hinson of The Washington Post said the scenes where Daniel collects his actors are the best part of the film, but the rest is outdated. In terms of religious response, Jesus of Montreal met "dead calm" on its release, in contrast to Scorsese's more controversial The Last Temptation of Christ.
Critics in the Toronto International Film Festival ranked the film second in the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time in 1993 and 2004 and fourth in 2015. In 2003, Rob Mackie of The Guardian called the film "thought-provoking and wickedly funny" and said "Lothaire Bluteau, makes a charismatic focus whose performance makes sense of the whole thing". In 2010, British critic Mark Kermode named Bluteau as one of "The 10 best screen faces of Jesus," calling him "mesmerising" and praising the film as a "genuine masterpiece" and "real cinematic miracle". In 2014, Marc-Andre Lussier of the Montreal-based La Presse called the film excellent. E! Online named it the third best "Jesus-inspired" film, calling it "beautiful" and "inventive".
Jesus of Montreal won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and swept the 11th Genie Awards, winning 12 prizes, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director for Arcand, and the Golden Reel Award. It was also nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.