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Black Robe

Year: 1991
Language: English
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 101 min
Director: Bruce Beresford
Producer: Sue Milliken, Stephane Reichel, Robert Lantos
Executive Producer: Brian Moore, Denis Héroux, Jake Eberts
Writer: Brian Moore
Cinematographer: Peter James
Editor: Tim Wellburn
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Yvan Labelle, Harrison Liu, Frank Wilson, Raoul Trujillo, Lawrence Bayne, Sandrine Holt, Aden Young, August Schellenberg, Lothaire Bluteau, Tantoo Cardinal
Production Company: Samson Productions, Alliance Communications

Black Robe is a bleak but majestic film about the diverse cultures of the French settlers and the Algonquin people, and the clashes between them. The subject matter was familiar to the Australian-born director Bruce Beresford who has repeatedly explored intercultural tensions in his films. Working from a script by Brian Moore, based on Moore’s bestselling novel, Beresford transposed both the spirit and the tone of the book, creating a compelling examination of the cultural and spiritual conflicts between these disparate peoples.

The hostile wilderness of 17th-century New France is the setting for the story of Father Laforgue (Bluteau), a young, idealistic Jesuit whose ambitious mission is to save the souls of the “savages” of New France. Upon his arrival from France, Laforgue embarks on a perilous journey by canoe, from Champlain’s fort upriver to a desolate Jesuit outpost where it is hoped he will “reap a harvest of souls.” He travels through the magnificent, nearly overwhelming landscape of the Canadian North with a group of Algonquin Indians as his guides.

It is a physical and spiritual journey for Laforgue; but the priest is driven onward by his religious fervour and the ascendancy of his beliefs. He must survive the rugged, demanding terrain and sensual, often violent, world of its inhabitants to accomplish his mission and preserve his faith. Laforgue’s convictions are challenged repeatedly; however, unlike his interpreter, a French carpenter, who adapts to the ways of the Indians, Laforgue finds himself increasingly disturbed by their life and customs. Eventually, his distress gives way to questioning his own disciplined, ascetic existence.

The film attempts to set aside erroneous but persistent characterizations of First Peoples in Canada. Both the novel and film were well researched and provide one of the more accurate and compassionate cinematic portrayals of the people and the period. Perhaps, part of the film’s sense of authenticity comes from its conclusion. Although Laforgue’s reflections culminate in a deeper understanding and a newfound respect for the Algonquin people, the religious conversion goes forward. There is no reprieve from this particularly grim and despairing piece of history. More than simply an epic tale, Black Robe adds to our understanding of the pluralism and complexity of our nation in its earliest days.