“Death is almost certain.” “Death is not always a great evil, Monsieur Champlain.” This exchange at the beginning of Black Robe (1991; streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy) creates room for a meditation on death that runs right to the very end of the film. It is a film not only about the clash of cultures and religions, but about the interpretation of what Christianity brings. One reviewer on the film website Letterboxd sees the film as an interpretive dialogue between the faithful Roman Catholic author of both the book on which the film is based, as well as the screenplay, and the agnostic director’s vision of what is happening.
Black Robe, in many ways, is similar to The Mission except for its setting on North American soil. Jesuit missionaries attempt to establish mission outposts in foreign, unfriendly soil. They are portrayed as genuinely caring about the people whom they are trying to reach. In Black Robe, Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau, who played Daniel in Jesus of Montrealtwo years before) travels with a group of Algonquin Indians trying to reach a mission established among the Hurons. They leave at the end of Autumn, to make a 1200-mile journey, which leads to Champlain’s warning about certain death. Along with Laforgue is another Frenchman, Daniel (Aden Young, in his first film), who indicates that he wants to study for the priesthood after they return. Instead he falls in love with the Algonquin chief’s daughter, Annuka (Sandrine Holt, also in her first film).
The majority of the film takes place in the wilderness of Quebec, which is beautifully shot by Peter James in sequence. Director Bruce Beresford said in a 1991 interview that he was intrigued by Brian Moore’s novel, and the challenge of trying to make Laforgue realistic and understandable. “In particular the priest, Laforgue, was significant, trying to convert the Indians to Christianity and baptise them. He travelled right across the known world to try to convince the Indians that they’re living their lives all wrong because they’ve got to go to this place, heaven, which doesn’t even exist. Looking back from the 20th century, this seems, in many ways, a mad thing to do. But they had their own approach to the world worked out and in terms of 17th century views, they thought they were doing the Indians a great favour.”
When Rogert Ebert reviewed it, he said that when it was over, “I sat there in a state of depressed suspension, wondering if that could possibly be all there was.” Even so, “One of the achievements of ‘Black Robe’…is that it re-creates a time when Christians were dogmatic and unswervingly convinced of their rightness; today, when we talk of the ‘fanaticism’ of religions like Islam, we forget that the modern religions of the West, so diluted by psychobabble, were once fierce and righteous enough to send men halfway around the world seeking martyrdom.”
This conflict between modern sensibilities about how far it is appropriate to go in evangelizing on behalf of one’s religion—which is assumed to be a private, internal affair—is brought into crystal-clear focus by the reality of death. Chomina (August Schellenberg) says that if he knew his recurring dream was a dream of his death, he would not have been scared in battle and would have been a great warrior. Laforgue’s mother tells him, after praying to St. Joan (of Arc, who was not actually canonized until 1920), that she will never see him again because he will die in North America. And, finally, after the Hurons consent to be baptized by Laforgue (mainly because they want to be cured of disease, though Laforgue tries to dissuade them from thinking that this will certainly happen), the closing shot has this epilogue: “Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec.” One of the Hurons prefigures this by saying that if they accept baptism, they will be seen as weak and will be defeated by their enemies.
If this is simply a matter of colonialism and the defeat of one culture by another, the outcome is nothing other than an unavoidable tragedy brought on the Hurons by foreign invaders. No doubt, many Christians and missionaries had no true love for those whom they were attempting to convert, considering them not fully human, but savages or worse. But Black Robe does not present simplistically any group’s motives. There were colonists who used Christianity as a pretense for taking land and oppressing people; the various Native peoples were not interchangeable or homogeneous. The Iroquois are not the Algonquin are not the Hurons.
We tend to have a simplistic, binary view of history: it was either white people or native people; colonizers or colonized; oppressors or oppressed. That describes some aspects of what happened in the United States later, but as with The Mission, Black Robe does not leave us with such easy answers. Christians ideally love people as people, in both their souls and their bodies, but the Christian religion requires that such love include a hope for salvation and eternal life. While human motives are always mixed, and Christianity and colonization often have been fused in unfortunate and tragic ways, Laforgue is both against the dehumanization of the Indians as well as in favor of their conversion.
That is a position that is likely incomprehensible or contradictory to modern interpreters of the real events. If such conversion leads to physical death, how could it be positive in any way? And yet, at the heart of Christianity is a proclamation of a God who took on flesh precisely to be killed in weakness and shame. If the Christian message is true, even the deaths of the Hurons is a gain for them, and for anyone else who dies while bearing the baptismal name of Christ. Death is not a good thing in itself, but “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Obviously, those who cannot understand why Laforgue would do and endure what he did are going to find physical death the worst possible thing that could result. Ebert concluded his review by writing that, in light of the epilogue, “It was as if the entire story of ‘Black Robe’ was a prelude to nothing.” Only if death is “nothing.” But for Laforgue and Christians whose faith has not been “diluted by psychobabble,” death is coming to each one of us. The hope in light of certain death is not to avoid it at all costs, but to have a certain promise that lasts beyond death.
Though some of the themes of Black Robe are depicted more powerfully in The Mission and Silence, this film would rightfully take its place with those two in terms of complexity and cinematic achievement.