Friends and film buffs remember Marc Gervais

Father Marc Gervais was a film scholar who turned successive generations of students into movie buffs, and inspired some of Canada's most eminent filmmakers.

Jesuit film scholar dies at 82

Marc Gervais in front of the F.C. Smith auditorium at Concordia University, where he screened movies for generations of film students. (Concordia University)

Montreal priest Marc Gervais, 82, was a film scholar who turned successive generations of Concordia University students into movie buffs, and inspired some of Canada’s most eminent filmmakers.

Gervais died March 25, 2012. He suffered from dementia for several years prior to his death.

On Friday, hundreds of friends, fellow Jesuits, family and former students packed Montreal’s St. Ignatius Church next to the Loyola campus of Concordia University, where Gervais taught film studies for nearly four decades.

"Whenever Marc spent time with us, he brought us to a deeper awareness of life, of ourselves, of the sacred in our midst," recalled homilist John Meehan, a fellow Jesuit.

"I always marveled at Marc’s ability to connect with anyone, from film undergrads – especially those who had been disillusioned with life – to great filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard, whom he knew personally," said Meehan.

Born in Sherbrooke, Que., on Dec. 3, 1929, Gervais began his studies for the Jesuit priesthood in 1950 and took his final vows in 1963.  Along the way, he developed a passion for cinema, eventually earning a PhD in film aesthetics from l’Université Paris-Sorbonne in 1979.

He was among the pioneering faculty of the communications arts program at Montreal’s Loyola College – which later merged with Sir George Williams University to become Concordia University.  

He taught Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand, Bon Cop Bad Cop producer Kevin Tierney, CBC host Hana Gartner and thousands who didn’t go on to film or broadcasting careers, but who were infected by his passion.

"He had an entourage of people that were like myself," said John Kent Harrison, a former student who had no particular interest in movies until Gervais suggested he sign up for one of his courses.

"We all fell in love with film  – and with Marc," said Harrison, a Los Angeles-based scriptwriter and Emmy Award-winning director.

Harrison recalled the weekly screenings of cinema classics Gervais would host in an auditorium in the basement of Loyola Chapel, dramatically gesticulating from the front of the room as he discussed a director’s use of light and shadow.

"He had a rickety old 16 mm projector, and he would show Bergman and Rossellini  —  or the New Wave or something.  

"He would freeze the image and just hold up his hands and look around the room – and we all would just say, ‘Ah! Yes, we understand.’"

Always dapper, charming and flirtatious, Gervais more often sported an ascot and dark glasses than a priest’s collar, but Harrison said Gervais’ take on film was deeply spiritual as well.

He never failed to point out the religious symbolism in a Hitchcock classic. 

But ultimately "he was most at home dealing with film makers like Rossellini or Bergman," Harrison said — directors whose cinematic themes were humanistic and provided insight into man’s search for meaning.

Bergman was closest to his heart, and Gervais’ 1999 biography of him, Ingmar Bergman: Magician and Prophet, is considered the definitive work on the late Swedish director.

The priest rubbed shoulders with Bergman and scores of other film greats in his annual pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival — a trip he made every May for 40 years.

Gervais’ stories became mythic among his adoring students.

"He’d come back and say, ‘So I was dining with Tippi Hedren,’ recalled Jeremy Zafran – a CBC broadcaster who was a student of Gervais’ in the 1990s. 

Hedren, an American actress, is primarily known for her roles in Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie

Gervais also helped establish the Loyola Peace Institute at Concordia University and taught at Lonergan College, a liberal arts school within the university. 

After his retirement in 2003, he continued to lecture on film and religion until his move to Pickering in 2009.

His one incongruity: Gervais was a lifelong Boston Bruins’ fan — sacrilege in a city where the Habs reign

At his funeral, draped over his casket and visible beneath the Jesuit flag, was the black and yellow jersey of his favourite team.