Brandon Sun (Newspaper) - June 23, 2002, Brandon, Manitoba
By Brian Gorman © Tribune Media Services
Luc Picard stars in the true story of Roch Theriault - the cult leader whose charisma was offset by his brutality - in Savage Messiah, a drama that makes its debut Sunday on MCHR Ch. 85. The story is told from the view of a composite character who opposed Theriault’s rule.
“Savage Messiah” is the kind of classy Canadian TV movie we’re used to seeing on CBC and CTV - not on a pay network.
The 95-minute psychological thriller was produced by Bernard Zukerman, who made such highly rated TV films as “Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story,” “Love and Hate: The Story of Colin and Joanne Thatcher,” “Million Dollar Babies” and “The Sleep Room.” And it was written by Sharon Riis, who produced the scripts for “Loyalties” and “Revenge of the Land.”
It might have landed on CBC, but it made the programmers there a little queasy.
“They were uncomfortable with the language and the violence,” Zukerman says. “The amount of warnings they would have had to put up would have covered the screen. And it would have been difficult for me to pull back on those elements, because they're so important to the story.”
So “Savage Messiah” airs Sunday, June 23, on TMN in Eastern Canada and on Movie Central in the West.
The story of Roch Theriault - the charismatic leader of a cult of eight “wives” and 26 children - is steeped in sex, power and violence and ends in acts as gruesome as anything Charles Manson could have dreamed up.
In fact, Zukerman says that when the movie was being filmed in Quebec, the set was besieged by press who considered Theriault "Quebec’s Manson.”
"We were stunned by the reaction in the Quebec press, when we started filming, at how strong a cult figure he is,” Zukerman recalls.
Played by Montreal actor Luc Picard, Theriault was a Quebecois who committed his worst crimes in Ontario, in a backwoods commune near a small town northeast of
Though not what you would call a pillar of the community, Theriault was regarded by the locals as colorful, dynamic and harmless - particularly by the men, some of whom may have traded goods and services for sexual favors from Theriault’s concubines.
He ran his commune with an iron fist, presiding over a society divided into family (his children by the women) and slaves (the ones fathered by other men), and he handed out punishment as harsh as it was bizarre.
And he was a mean drunk, which eventually led to his downfall. He was arrested in 1989 after he crudely amputated the gangrenous arm of one of the women.
Though Picard’s performance as Theriault is complex, layered and riveting, he’s not the center of the story.
Instead, Zukerman has chosen to focus the narrative on one social worker who
smells a rat and forces an investigation into Theriault’s activities.
Paula Jackson, played by British actress Polly Walker, is a composite of all the social workers who pressed to have Theriault’s commune shut down and the children taken into government custody. A victim of spousal abuse, Jackson has a back story that gives her special insight into the plight of Theriault’s wives and at the same tune.
makes her motives for pursuing the case slightly suspect: Is this a personal vendetta, or is she simply more sensitive to the warning signs?
"Luc is great as Roch, but it’s a great big larger-than-life part,” Zukerman says. "The social worker part is much more difficult. You really have to be inside (that person’s mind).”
As for Picard, he went into "Savage Messiah” directly from a Quebec film about a serial killer.
“To do two roles like that, back to back, he was afraid it might poison his mind,” Zukerman says.
Picard managed to come out of the experience emotionally intact. Still, for his next role, he’s holding out for a comedy. •
dramatizes the power of a Savage Messiah