Thursday, May 28, 2009
Black Robe (1991)
One of the most gritty and downright bleak historical films I’ve seen, Black Robe follows a Jesuit priest called Father Laforgue as he travels into uncharted territory in 1600s Canada. Escorted by a party of Algonquin Indians, Laforgue and his adventurous companion Daniel are led by canoe into what is now Quebec, where they hope to find and convert a local Huron Indian tribe to Christianity. Along the way, Laforgue attempts to endear himself to his escorts, but his austere manner and strange form of dress (the black robe of the title) are seen as malevolent by the Algonquins, and as the party moves deeper into the wild, a dangerous divide forms between the two groups.
Black Robe was released the year after Dances With Wolves, and it’s tempting to argue that its grim, naturalistic style is some kind of counterpoint to that film’s romantic idealism. Director Bruce Beredsford goes out of his way here to document the manifold complications of the relationship between Indians and colonial settlers, and his depiction of the hardships and the violence of the era is uncompromisingly realistic. So too is his depiction of the Indians (the book this film is based on is said to be one of the most well-researched depictions of Native American life ever written), who are played by a wonderful collection of actors, most notably August Schellenberg as the group’s leader, Chomina. Most movies about Native Americans paint them either as wise and noble sages or as warlike savages, but Black Robe manages to show both they and the settlers in all their complexity. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t include the requisite scenes of the two groups learning from one another, or that Daniel doesn’t begin a romance with Chomina’s daughter, but all of this is handled with a subtlety that is truly rare in these kinds of films.
This is partly thanks to the way that, despite the sweeping landscapes in which it takes place, the film’s story remains elegantly simple and centered around its principle characters. I couldn’t help but think of Aguirre, The Wrath of God at many points in the story, as Black Robe has the same kind of emotional and physical rawness that made that film so memorable. The two also share a certain subtle absurdity, manifested here in the form of a dwarf sorcerer called Mestigoit who counsels the Indians that Laforgue might be a demon, inciting a debate among the Algonquins about whether or not they should kill the priest or leave him stranded in the wilderness. This is only one of many small indictments of religious figures that fill the story. Beresford seems to repeatedly draw a comparison between Laforgue and Indian shamans, and between Indian religions and Catholicism in general, and always with a slight skepticism. But Black Robe is certainly not any kind of polemic, and Beresford complicates his themes as much as he does his characters, always adding new angles and perspectives, some of which are truly unexpected.
Still, all this murkiness just might be what keeps the film from achieving any real sublimity with its ending, which is as haunting as it is puzzling and unsatisfying. There’s a certain kind of fatalism and inevitability that comes with the territory in historical fiction (we do know how this all ends, of course), and even if we can appreciate the necessity of the film ending the way it does, it still leaves us wanting more. That being said, Black Robe is still notable as a strange kind of historical artifact. Few films have ever tried to capture the mood and the struggles of this particular time and place so carefully or unflinchingly, and even fewer have done it this well.