It's rated R, and it is intense. Like, there's some very uncomfortable stuff happening on screen. Someone gets an arrow to the neck. There's more than a little bit of sex stuff going on. This is really weird when you are watching this in your grad school class in a teeny-tiny room and no one is going to make eye contact. It's pretty gory in general. When I heard we were watching Black Robe, I thought I had a safe PG. Not so much. R.
DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
This might not be the best movie for me to watch right now. I'm pretty sure the Catholic circles I run with love this movie. I haven't seen it before and I might be completely wrong. For all I know, this movie is considered blasphemous, but I'm just lost overall. It was introduced to me in my grad school class. Things that people should note about grad schools in secular universities: they think that religion and faith is considered silly. This class is named something along the lines of "World Literature", but all we do is read diaries from the New World. Believe it or not, Catholics don't have the best track record during this time period. Add onto the fact that the Church right now has a lot of people hurting, I suppose me included, how do I go about watching a movie about a missionary who is often out-of-context portrayed as silly for having his beliefs.
I don't know what to do with this one. Honestly, the movie is pretty interesting. I'm fairly read up on this specific topic now. I've read far too much from the Jesuit missionaries in the New World and I don't know what is accurate and what isn't. It seems that every document that comes out of this class invalidates another document from this era. I was watching this Netflix show (I think) called Ugly Delicious, where the argument was primarily that authenticity is dumb. The problem with a movie like Black Robe is that authenticity is the foundation of appreciating this movie. This is a movie that is fundamentally a biography of those involved. I think I talked about this in one of my more recent reviews (why am I blanking / not looking it up?) about how some stories are important to get right. Black Robe isn't as famous as many of the other movies I've been discussing. There isn't a ton of commentary on the authenticity that I could find with a quick Google search. So, all I can do, without being an expert at this story, is to treat it simply as a narrative and assume that many of the elements are accurate. From a Catholic perspective, the story of Fr. Paul Laforgue is one of inspiration. He did this absolutely terrifying journey. I've been reading about what it takes to become a saint and I always have a hard time relating to stories about the saints because of stories like Black Robe. Laforgue, in Black Robe, (can I establish that I don't have to write "in Black Robe" over and over because I don't know the real story?) is this stoic individual. He seems almost removed from reality. From a certain standpoint, this makes Laforgue super cool. He is unmoved and undeterred from completing his mission. He is the Jesuit that all Jesuits I'm sure wish that they could be. He is unflinching in his mission and, even when tortured, doesn't cry out in pain. He is quiet for most of the film and speaks the language of the Hurons, giving him that certain feeling of mystery. I always had a hard time relating to the saints because of these things. I like the idea of Fr. Paul Laforgue being a regular dude. I wanted to see a sense of hesitation from him. This movie doesn't really provide that. The only thing that makes Laforgue relatable is that no one really takes him seriously. He's kind of a failure in most of his works don't work out (until the end where they just kind of do?). But he's this guy who keeps just taking slight after slight with dignity. I want the frustrated saint, which I imagine is extremely difficult to portray. Laforgue, played by Lothaire Bluteau, is one emotion the entire time. I don't love this. I think it is cool, but the character I can least relate to is Batman. Bluteau is a disrespected Batman of his faith, is what I'm saying.
Message wise, this is an interesting travel narrative. I actually can kind of appreciate that I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be thinking. The movie definitely strays from the "noble savage" narrative. I appreciate the shift in perspective. Traditionally, we have seen the white man as either a blight on the natives or as the white savior. Laforgue, to the Hurons, is seen as an idiot. The locals actually consider all Europeans to be idiots and I really dig that. It shifts the dynamic. Usually, we have the one character who is not on board for the European to hang out. That character is still here. In fact, he oddly might be my favorite character of the piece because his makeup is so on fleek. But there is a pretty strong shift in what is expected versus what is actually delivered. (I'm not sure what that means either. I apologize and will return with some caffeine.) I think it is cool that there is no traditional good guy or bad guy in this film. Okay, that's not true. The Mohawk tribe is full on nutbars in this movie. They are the scary elements of the film, but they are also only a small part of the movie. I read that the portrayal of the Mohawk was probably the most controversial element of the film because they are so intense in their portrayal. I probably have to agree with that. They are seen more as Reavers from Firefly than anything else in the movie. The only thing that can be seen as a little polarizing between the two groups is the fact that Laforgue is so unyielding.
There are flashbacks in the movie to Laforgue in Europe. He sees the trauma that previous missionaries have gone through and these moments are meant to terrify the audience. But Laforgue never has the moment that Christ has. He never really has that moment of asking the Lord for another way. Rather, he's flat-affect the entire time. I just think of the opportunity missed. Laforgue is so zealous about his mission that some of the more intense scenes come across as darkly comical. He scourges himself. The message of this scene is that Laforgue is so without sin that he is ashamed of his body when lust crosses his mind. He confronts Daniel and just speaks his mind plainly. There's no finesse and it comes across like something might be mentally wrong with Laforgue. It's so odd, but I think that there are times where the message is so intense that it actually has the opposite effect of what is intended. Laforgue is meant to be this character who keeps pushing in the face of adversity. That's a great message and I think that has been partially accomplished in this film. But on the other hand, he keeps pressing with the same tactics he does from the beginning. Perhaps this is his faith, but it also completely ignores the fact that Laforgue is dealing with real people with real responses. It makes him stubborn and silly. What comes out of this actually is kind of cool, though, at least at times. There's a moment, and it oddly might be my favorite moment, where Laforgue gets stuck out in the woods. He's referred to as Blackrobe (one word) and it is this cool image of the black robe against the trees. This is where the message is kind of solid and I like it. Laforgue getting lost in the woods is so revealing of his ineptitude. Everyone, including Laforgue, is aware that he shouldn't be out here. The second that the natives decide to dump him, he's a dead man because he is untrained. This is probably the message of faith I've been looking for.
Maybe it was the audience I was watching it with, but I didn't like how the movie made faith kind of seem silly. The natives laugh at Laforgue and the movie never establishes who is in the right. The Jesuits are killed off in droves because of their visit. The natives see God as witchcraft to heal the sick. Even Laforgue comments on that, claiming that baptizing the natives without an understanding of that Baptism is fruitless. But he still does it. The film paints this image of the locals walking up to this makeshift church and welcoming Christ into their lives, but it wasn't due to the work of Laforgue. It seemed like they were scared. Even the afterword is a bit of a bummer in the long run. It talks about how their embrace of their faith got them all slaughtered in the end. I really believe that director Bruce Beresford wanted to make a story about faith. I think he wanted Laforgue to appear noble and humble. But there were moments where I just needed the character to act a little more rational. I wanted him to come across like a peer and all he seemed throughout the movie was this insane zealot who wanted to push his religion on the locals.
Basically, what this movie needed was a bit of vulnerability and the ability to laugh at itself. My honest thoughts? I think that Black Robe was supposed to be the ultimate Catholic movie honoring this great missionary. There are certainly a lot of elements that contribute to that. But I watched elements of this movie from the perspective of the natives and that story isn't always conveyed. It definitely didn't feel like Laforgue loved the people he traveled with. That wasn't absolute, to be sure. There is the relationship between Chomina and Laforgue. Chomina is great. He's the character I want to focus on for an entire movie. He is a leader. He has a goal. He is fallible and makes changes throughout the movie. I also feel like the relationship between Chomina and Laforgue is because of the persistence of Chomina, not of the priest. Their separation seemed like everything got ramped up at the end on the part of Laforgue and it was slightly undeserved. Why couldn't Laforgue be vulnerable with Chomina? I could see why the other Indians didn't want Laforgue in their camp. He was distant and weird the entire time. Why would I want my missionary story to be about a guy who was super weird and judgy to everyone the entire time. Yes, he should comment on sin, but I never really got the concept that he was there to spread the good news of God's love. Rather, he was there to convert by science and persistence. I don't know. I'm probably being a selfish jerk right now, but that kind of distanced me.
I liked the movie overall. I just don't know what to do about it. It's definitely the last movie I should have watched right now. I don't know what to think anymore. It's very frustrating, to say the least. But the movie has a lot going for it, if nothing else, by providing the story of a man of faith in the gorgeous Canadian wilderness.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.