As Martin Scorsese discovered with his 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, you don't mess with the Gospel unless you're prepared for a serious scuffle. Denys Arcand was prepared, although his Jesus of Montreal never prompted the uproar the director expected, and this Canadian film received little attention when it played in U.S. theaters.
When an acting troupe updates the Passion play to incorporate new research into the life of Christ, all hell threatens to break loose. Yet what they portray hardly seems that outrageous, nor is Arcand's notion that if Jesus were to live today say, as a young actor in Montreal he would be betrayed anew. In this case, the temptation occurs not in the desert but in the big city, where the talented performer (Lothaire Bluteau) must confront the lures of ''maximum exposure.'' The most disquieting thing about the movie turns out to be its own earnestness in anticipating controversy but not provoking it. For that a film needs more than passionless calculation. C+