[Film Review] Black Robe (1991)

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Title: Black Robe
Year: 1991
Country: Canada, Australia
Language: English, Cree, Algonquin, Mohawk, Latin
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenwriter: Brian Moore, based on his own novel
Music: Georges Delerue
Cinematography: Peter James
Lothaire Bluteau
Aden Young
Sandrine Holt
August Schellenberg
Tantoo Cardinal
Billy Two Rivers
Frank Wilson
François Tassé
Jean Brousseau
Lawrence Bayne
Yvan Labelle
Raoul Max Trujillo
Marthe Turgeon
Gordon Tootoosis
Rating: 7.3/10

Black Robe 1991.jpg

Riding on the coattail of DANCES WITH WOLVES’ triumph, added by Beresford’s own DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989) Oscar coup, BLACK ROBE, based on Brian Moore’s novel about a Jesuit’s resolution of proselytizing Christianity among local Indians in the 17th century Canada, is green-lit as a Canada-Australia co-production and studiously shot entirely on inhospitable locations.

Father LaForgue (Bluteau), aka, the titular Black Robe, and his young non-Jesuit assistant Daniel (Young), are escorted by a cohort of Algonquin Indians (who have been ostensibly converted to Christianity), to traverse 1500 miles to look for a Catholic mission in a Huron village. En route, the group will fall in with several other Indian tribes, some are suspiciously non-violent, others are blatantly hostile. While LaForgue is flustered by Daniel’s copulation with Annuka (Holt, what a youthful exotica!), the sultry daughter of Chomina (Schellenberg), the Algonquin leading guide who is well versed in English, the Algonquins begin to question their mission, fanned by a Mantagnais shaman proclaiming that Black Robe is the embodiment of the Devil.

In mid-stream, the Algonquin backpedals on their promise and leaves LaForgue in the lurch, only a guilt-driven Chomina later returns with his family and a tailing Daniel, but they are ambushed and tortured by the ferocious Iroquois (the barbarian act among rivaling tribes is a searing condemnation of savage among uncivilized beings), only LaForgue, Daniel, Annuka and Chomina manages to escape during a snowy night (honey trap is a straightforward, foolproof ploy regardless of any societal context).

The last stretch of their journey is punctuated by Chomina’s succumbing to his severe wound, and it is his clairvoyant vision of the place where he dies, of which he constantly dreams, that bears witness to Beresford and Moore’s contestation of religious freedom, a foisted Christianity can not displace Chomina’s inveterate belief that has been deeply dispersed through generations of his people and indoctrinated for all their lives, such is attested by a numinous manifestation during Chomina’s last gasp.

Chomina’s last prophesy is that the Black Robe must finish his quest alone, so when Father LaForgue finally reaches his destination, he must brave himself for the rigors and disease prevailing over the Huron village, and devotes his remaining life to his evangelical mission, ironically, the ending caption sheds a light on the upshot of the proselytized Huron tribe, which doesn’t bode well, one might be intrigued to ask, what does that to do with their altered religion?

A scrawny Lothaire Bluteau cuts his teeth into this demanding leading role and ekes out a touching devoutness precariously nigh on obsession. August Schellenberg, a Mohawk descent, also strikes a chord in his personification of fortitude, sensibility and a magic fruit borne out of wishful-thinking civilization. All in all, Bruce Beresford’s BLACK ROBE is a grand epic toning down the unsavory side of westernized colonization, and lets a humane spirit take the wheel in the choppy flux of a religious journey.

referential entries: Beresford’s TENDER MERCIES (1983, 8.2/10); Roland Joffé’s THE MISSION (1986, 5.0/10), Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990, 8.1/10).

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