BLACK ROBE ** 1/2 (Australia-Canada, 1991)
BLACK ROBE fits those schemes perfectly. In 1634 New France (Quebec), Jesuit Father Laforgue (Bluteau) a young French missionary, is assigned by the famous geographer/statesman Champlain to trek some 1500 miles to the mission in a Huron settlement. Blackrobe, as the Indians call him, is accompanied by eight canoefuls of Algonquins and young French translator Daniel (Young).
The trip through the wintry wilderness is a physical adventure for all, a sentimental journey for Daniel who falls in love with chief Chomina's (Schellenberg) daughter Annuka (Holt), and a spiritual voyage for Father Laforgue.
Nature is alien to the Frenchmen but not beyond their grasp. The cultures however are mutually uncomprehending. The Indians see the Europeans as ugly, stupid and speaking in riddles, even as demons. Father Laforgue suffers from carnal temptation (he mortifies his flesh after seeing Daniel and Annuka making love) and from Christian doubts about his mission to "bring about the salvation of these poor barbarians."
The journey takes the party through gorgeously wild landscapes. The Algonquins abandon the devil Blackrobe, but return, for mixed reasons: to keep their word to protect the priest and from fear of reprisals by Champlain. The party is attacked by the Iroquois, the survivors are tortured, in harrowing scenes considerably toned down from the novel. Annuka, Chomina and the two Frenchmen escape. Blackrobe reaches his destination alone and with renewed faith.
We were really never in doubt about the solidity of his beliefs. Among the clues: the Father visualized a cathedral's pillars while looking at a canopy of trees -- a risky old romantic metaphor, but in this context not a cliche.
The movie inevitably brings to mind THE MISSION and DANCES WITH WOLVES. Yet it is infinitely more metaphysical, authentic and un-Hollywoodish than DANCES. Like that picture, it subtitles the native languages. Its critical reception was even better than for the Costner film, but unlike the latter, BLACK ROBE seems to have had no budget for promotion, media exposure and hype. Since it was a severe affair without any feelgood fireworks or aspects, it will be seen by few people.
BLACK ROBE raises a not-entertaining moral question: why proselytize? It offers no facile answers and though made in our revisionist times of comparative ethnography, neither prettifies, romanticizes, analyzes or "un-savages" the North American Natives. Nor does it elevate or deride the spirituality of Father Laforgue. Blackrobe is totally a true believer of his period, sustained by a faith which stipulates that salvation is conceivable only within the Catholic Church.
This is a 1634 movie, not a 1991 one. It comes close to an audiovisual version of diaries or memoirs by explorers of the time. There are minimal concessions: Algonquins twice --and surprisingly-- utter good English; Annuka is played by an exotic but not Algonquinish fashion model.(The other actors too are unknown to U.S. audiences, except for Bluteau, the lead in JESUS OF MONTREAL.)
Ideologies aside, BLACK ROBE is an esthetic triumph. The natural settings are extraordinary. Production design, costumes, as well as the performances make everything look genuine. Rhythm and editing are superior. The photography by Peter James (DRIVING MISS DAISY) is exquisite. Georges Delerue's romantic score is perfectly dosed. With the demise of Film Societies, whatever future audiences exist for this work will it on video. It is distressing. While BLACK ROBE will not lose its interest on a TV monitor, it cries out for a large theater screen.