Bruce Beresford’s historical epic about a French Jesuit in old Quebec is a beautifully made film built around a big lie. Whatever its merits, Black Robe is also a testament to the importance of narrative. Good acting, a beautiful score, magnificent cinematography, none of it really matters if the film has a plot that is fundamentally reactionary.
Black Robe begins in the small village that will eventually become Quebec City. The Jesuit order petitions Samuel Champlain, the founder of New France, to allow a young priest named Father LaForgue to join a mission in Huron country. LaForgue, played by the French Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau, not only understands the dangers – the Huron and the Iroquois are at war — he welcomes them. It is 1634, and, as amply demonstrated by the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, and the suppression of the Huguenots in France, Europeans took religion seriously. LaForgue intends to convert the Huron to Christianity, or die trying.
Samuel Champlain, who was baptised a Protestant, but converted to Roman Catholicism after he entered the service of Henry IV, had none of the genocidal racism of the English or the piratical lust for gold of the Spanish. A devout Christian, but also an early figure of the Enlightenment, he founded New France, not to exploit the Indians, but to provide a refuge where Catholics and Protestants could live in peace. He respects and admires the Hurons, who in turn respect and admire him. He understands the courage, and the fanatical zeal of Jesuits like LaForgue, but has no desire to see him killed. So he makes an agreement with Chomina, an experienced Indian guide played by the native Canadian actor August Schellenberg, to take the young priest hundreds of miles through the wilderness safely to the Huron Mission, which hasn’t sent back any news for years.
The expedition, which consists of Chomina, LaForgue, Chomina’s beautiful young daughter Annuka, Daniel, a young French translator in his late teens, and Chomina’s small band of Algonquin, set off in late Fall, paddling up the river in canoes as the chill descends upon the northern landscape. Daniel, who’s in love with Annuka, adapts himself easily to the Algonquin way. LaForgue is another story. Consumed with his missionary zeal, he cannot understand that the Algonquin take their own beliefs, their customs and their dreams, as seriously as he takes the father, son, and holy spirit. It leads to the inevitable, and the inevitably disastrous, conflict. LaForgue thinks the Algonquin are children in need of guidance. The Algonquin think LaForgue, who doesn’t sleep with women and who selfishly hordes material objects, is quite possibly a demon. After Chomina dreams of a grim-faced LaForgue, a mysterious island, and his own death, he instructs the men paddling his canoes to stop along the banks of the river, where they consult with a shaman from the Montagnais tribe, who confirms Chomina’s suspicion. LaForgue is a demon, not a man.
So far so good. Bruce Beresford, who also made the great Australian war movie Breaker Morant, is undoubtedly a skilled filmmaker, and he’s found locations in Quebec so remote that they look pretty much the same as they did in 1634. Aside from the historical error that the Montagnais are unfamiliar with Frenchmen – they were the first tribe Champlain made contact with and close allies with New France – the conflict between LaForgue and the Algonquin is handled well. Ward Churchill, who wrote a famous essay attacking Black Robe as racist because it shows “Indians fucking on the ground like dogs” doesn’t seem to understand how it’s LaForgue, not Beresford, who has a negative view of sex. LaForgue, who watches Daniel and Annuka making love, and then punishes himself for his own lusts by whipping himself with a branch torn off a tree, is a puritanical voyeur. Daniel, on the other hand, who’s deeply in love with Annuka, comes to believe that the Algonquin are better natural Christians than the French. They forgive things we would never forgive. They have a conception of the afterlife in their dreams, he says to LaForgue, who scoffs contemptuously at their “childish” beliefs. Even though the Montagnais Shaman is a grotesque figure, a dwarf with a garishly painted face, he’s essentially right. LaForgue is a demon who rejects nature. He’s the vanguard of an invasion that will destroy the Algonquin way of life.
The problem comes when Chomina decides to abandon LaForgue and leave him to die in the brutal Canadian winter. “Get your Jesus to save you,” one of the Algonquin says, taunting the Frenchman. Even though Chomina later has second thoughts and goes back to save LaForgue, the damage has been done. As anybody with an even passing familiarity with the history of Canada or the United States knows, the one constant in the relations between Indians and white men is that Indians and white men make treaties. White men break treaties. I’m not exactly sure why Beresford made such an unfortunate narrative choice. My guess is that he carried it over whole cloth from the novel Black Robe but it’s central to the plot. Everything that follows, the party’s capture by Iroquois, the way LaForgue, Chomina, and Daniel are tortured, the murder of Chomina’s wife and young son, all of it all of it flows from Chomina’s betrayal and later repentance. LaForgue, in turn, even though his missionary work in New France ultimately leads to the Huron losing their martial spirit and being conquered by their enemies, is shown to have good, if ultimately disastrous intentions. That, as Ward Churchill correctly pointed out, makes the film dangerous propaganda, an ex-post-facto justification of genocide. The more of Beresford’s great skill as a filmmaker that goes into constructing such a harsh, brutal vision of what Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois life in Canada used to be like, the more it seems to justify their conquest by the French, and by the Catholic Church.
Like The Deer Hunter, which falsely portrayed the North Vietnamese locking Americans up in tiger cages — when the historical reality was just the opposite – Black Robe is a great work of art that commits an unpardonable act of violence against the truth.