Black Robe (1991) is a film that has been on my radar for a long time. To complete my Master’s degree in Florida Studies (yes, that is a thing), I wrote my thesis on Franciscan missionaries during the Spanish colonization of the state. When talking with my professors about the subject, the film about Jesuits in French Colonial Canada was often mentioned. I never got around to watching it at that time. Criticize me if you like, but the experiences in either place were different enough where I felt like I did not need to turn to Hollywood to pad out a 100 page plus paper. Then there is my doctoral dissertation to consider. Black Robe did not make it there either for two reasons. First, it came out in 1991, and I cut my time period off in 1973, though I did stretch it a little to include some films that premiered later in the 1970s. Secondly, the film deals with Canada. I was concerned with how America was portrayed, and the majority of the pieces I discussed were set in the United States. Besides, strangely it was financed by Australia, seemingly at the bequest of our neighbors to the north. I tell you all this as a preview for my frustrations with it.
It is 1634, in Quebec, Canada (known then as New France), when Black Robe starts. We see the beginnings of the colonial settlement, with colonists hard at work constructing new buildings and native peoples living nearby. Walking through this burgeoning town is Father Paul LaForgue (Lothaire Bluteau), a newly arrived Jesuit priest. We know this because later on we see flashbacks of his life in France and how he became part of the priesthood. He is on his way to meet with Samuel de Champlain (Jean Brousseau), the French leader of the colony. Father LaForgue has been directed to travel some 1500 miles into the North American hinterland to be a missionary to the Huron people. In order to get there, Champlain enlists the help of the local Algonquin people to provide passage for Father LaForgue. Before sending the priest off, Champlain warns the young man of the dangers that await him, and that he must contribute to the canoe paddling and any other activity necessary for their survival during their journey. Father LaForgue is accepting, even when Champlain tells him that it is unlikely that the priest will live to see European civilization again. The native person enlisted to travel with Father LaForgue is Chomina (August Schellenberg), and his band is compensated for their troubles with various trinkets and tools. They are also joined by Daniel Davost (Aden Young), a member of the colony who has an eye for Chomina’s daughter, Annuka (Sandrinne Holt). Father LaForgue agrees to Daniel’s presence because he knows the language better. With everything settled, they depart in their canoes. Over the course of the coming days, the Algonquins discuss what they should do with the Jesuit they refer to as “Black Robe.” Many of them are convinced that he is a demon and that they should kill him. This notion is given further credence in their opinion when they consult a sorcerer, who says that he recognizes Father LaForgue as an agent of evil. There is also an ominous dream had by Chomina, where he sees his own death and his eyes being plucked by a crow, who he interprets as the Jesuit. For his people, dreams are more real than reality, and they all believe something must be done. Instead of killing Father LaForgue, they opt for abandoning him. Not long after, though, Chomina feels guilty for not honoring the promise he made to Champlain, and goes back for the Jesuit. Unfortunately, when they find him, they are attacked by a band of Mohawk. The only survivors are Father LaForgue, Daniel, Annuka, and Chomina, though Chomina took an arrow to the torso and the arrow head could not be extracted. They suffer a short, but brutal confinement, and are only able to escape when Annuka uses her, ahem, womanly wiles to distract their guard. Despite all their losses, Father LaForgue insists they continue on to the Huron, a plan which actually suits Chomina because he expects the Mohawk will believe they would head back towards Quebec. Yet, after some more hard miles, Chomina finally succumbs to his wounds. A little farther, and they make it to the Huron settlement and Father LaForgue’s destination. Annuka and Daniel go off together, leaving Father LaForgue to enter the Huron village alone. He enters a collection of buildings that seem deserted, including the mission church. Inside is one dead priest, and another that is approaching his last breath. A sickness has visited the people there, and many are afflicted. Despite some misgivings, the Huron agree to Baptism, and that is essentially how the film ends.
Actually, that is not quite how Black Robe ends. There is post-script that explains how a few years after their Baptism, the Huron were wiped out by the Iroquois. That is a gross over-simplification of the history native peoples in that region, and their experience with Catholic missionaries. My apologies, but I have to put on my historian cap for a moment. One thing I always wondered about the interactions between Europeans and native peoples at the time of contact is why did the latter not immediately kill every last one of the former on which they could lay hands. This did happen in some cases, but not as often as popular thought might lead you to believe. Far too often we are taught that the only thing Europeans brought to North and South America was death and destruction. You get the same message in the film, particularly when the Huron debate whether or not they should accept Baptism. While the sickness with which they are dealing is not explicitly said to be of European origin, I can infer that this is the case. More than the sword or the gun, disease is responsible for more Native American deaths than any other factor. At the same time, I do not believe that Europeans are entirely to blame for this, at least not directly. Nobody in the world in the seventeenth century understood how germs spread, and most of the time it was linked to things like “swamp gasses.” The other huge impact Europeans had on native peoples was the change in culture they instituted. This is what the Hurons worried about in the film, that if they allowed themselves to be Baptized would they still be Huron? One of the things to remember about how Catholic missionaries approached native peoples, and this is something glossed over in the film, is that they tailored their message to the people they evangelized. It was not a “take it or leave it” proposition. You can get some sense of this in how Father LaForgue had at least a knowledge of the Algonquin language. History provides clearer clues. In other Catholic colonies, Native American culture was interpreted through the lens of Catholicism. This is how we got El Día de los Muertos, which I talked about in my review of Coco (2017). Was there same change that happened for people like the Huron? Of course. However, it was not like Europeans showed up on American shores and immediately started murdering everyone they found. This is one reason why native peoples did not do the same thing in return.
What annoyed me more about Black Robe is how they portrayed Father LaForgue. Every time he refers to native peoples collectively, he uses words like “savages” and “barbarians.” Let me be absolutely clear: these are terrible words to use when talking about anyone, at any point in history. At the same time, these are more unpalatable to modern ears than they were to people in the seventeenth century. Europeans looked at their own countries and compared them to what they found in the New World. Because native peoples did not have what they had, by their own definition that made them savage. I bring this up because for Catholic missionaries this was not the end. For other European countries, that perceived savagery was a ludicrous justification for doing all manner of unspeakable things. The missionaries, in keeping with sound Catholic teaching, saw native peoples as redeemable. While there were many Jesuits that perished trying to convert Native Americans to Christianity, there were plenty of others who did so successfully. That is why I found the post-script so offensive. I also did not appreciate the way they have Father LaForgue reacting to seeing people having sex. Native peoples had a different perspective on such acts, and whether or not they should be done in private. He also takes it inexplicably hard when he sees Annuka and Daniel making love, and for some reason the filmmakers decided to have him flagellate himself after this accidental encounter. No. As per usual, our modern culture cannot comprehend how anyone could give up sex, and you hear this is the incredulous mutters of a few of Chomina’s followers. I also find it remarkable that you do not see Father LaForgue celebrating Mass once. Mass is at the center of the Faith, and he seemingly had everything with him needed to give it.
I am not sure to whom I would recommend Black Robe. As I understand it, sometimes it is watched by male and female religious, though I hope they skip through the sex scenes! There is something to be said about Father LaForgue’s dedication. In skimming a few other reviews, I noticed some critics referring to the Jesuit is being obsessed. Again, modern culture does not seem to understand Faith. At the same time, there were some other historical inaccuracies that I did not describe. I mean, teepees? Come on. On the whole, I would not recommend it if for no other reason than the uncomfortable-ness of some of the language and scenes.