Saturday, April 23, 2011

Black Robe

1991 R 101 minutes
Netflix says... In 1634, Jesuit missionary Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) arrives in the Canadian wilderness to convert the Huron and Algonquin Indians to Catholicism. Although the Algonquin chief (August Schellenberg) offers guidance and friendship, Laforgue doesn't endear himself to the natives. On a journey up the St. Lawrence River, a devastating chain of events causes Laforgue to question his beliefs and forever changes the natives' way of life.

The 73rd Virgin says... This is so good as to be nearly sacred to me. The extreme isolation and overwhelming distances that even the natives faced are described here in scene after scene. I once heard Siskel and Ebert discuss Australian directors' seeming ability to direct the landscape. It is never more apparent than in Bruce Beresford's work here. There are scenes of beauty and sheer distance that still shock me. There is also action, suspense, and brutal violence.

Lothaire Bluteau is perfect as young Father Laforgue. He is all of us from the developed world faced with this unfathomable wilderness. He shows flashes of wisdom and grace and courage and then, when his world view is threatened, veers back to butt-headedness and moralization. Finally, exhausted by experience, he achieves what he set out to achieve, consequences be damned. The final scenes go from epiphany to grim reality to trancedence to inevitable loss. One can't help but hear echoes of The Fisher King - the myth, not the movie - in his character.

Much is made of its portrayal of the Iroquois as vicious and bloodthirsty. Why not? What else would they be? They're humans - intelligent enough and spiritual enough I suppose - but also primitive and, well, human. Would you have me believe that in all of history, the one place and time where humans were unusually kind to outsiders and strangers was in North America? In 1634?

How Netflix classifies this in the genre of "Faith and Spirituality" is beyond me. It's a little like classifying "The Seventh Seal" under "Chess Instruction". I wonder how many potential viewers are turned off by the classification, and how many others come over from "Places in The Heart" and "Veggie Tales" only to find 3 explicit sex scenes and gruesome violence. But my 84 y.o. mother liked it fine, and it is forever in my top 20.

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