Monday, August 13, 2007
BLACK ROBE (1991, Canada/Australia, Bruce Beresford, Brian Moore screenplay from his novel)
I’m afraid of this country. The devil rules here. He controls the hearts and minds of these poor people.
But they are true Christians. They live for each other. They forgive things we would never forgive.
Pity Brian Moore. This Irish-Canadian novelist holds the distinction of having seen more bad movie treatments of his not bad books than any other poor soul on the planet. THE STATEMENT, COLD HEAVEN and CATHOLICS are as bad as movies can be: THE BLOOD OF OTHERS is bland, and even the THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE ultimately relents on the novel’s unrelenting bleakness.
BLACK ROBE is the exception. Moore finally took things into his own hands, drafting the screenplay and exec producing. A potent, realistic portrayal of the seventeenth century Catholic mission to the Hurons, this uncompromising film is celebrated for imposing cinematography that goes beyond pretty nature shots to portray the daunting scale of the Canadian wilderness, ultimately conveying the spiritual power Huron and Algonquin people found in the land, and the sense of isolation and spiritual oppression experienced by the Europeans; “The devil rules here. The forests speak. The dead talk at night.”
Fiercely anti-Catholic in his early writings, Moore became intrigued with spirituality mid-career and in time even achieved some sort of peace – or at least detante – with Holy Mother Church. BLACK ROBE is admirable for its even-handed refusal to sentimentalize or demean either native or Catholic culture. If we can’t quite empathize with the joyless stoicism of this Jesuit missionary priest –we wish he’d had at least some of the earthy humanity of a Father Damien, but the film refuses to modernize either priest or Algonquin to manipulate our sympathies – this “soldier of heaven” earns our respect and perhaps our understanding, enduring privation and even torture to reach out to the people he feels called to serve. And there’s no faulting his ultimate epiphany: if in dramatic terms it underwhelms – the story-telling doesn’t adequately prepare us for his final revelation – it is certainly gratifying thematically.
The film makers don’t always manage to direct our attention to what’s important, or to clearly shape events to tell the story with real mastery. Or perhaps that’s part of the film’s strategy: certainly we share some of Father Laforgue’s disorientation and incomprehension as he is isolated from all that’s familiar and immersed in a world profoundly different from what he knows. Focus on the character arcs and relationships among Laforgue, his interpreter Daniel, and Chomina the Algonquin patriarch and you’ll be fine.
In the final analysis, a remarkable film, an historically precise portrayal of two particular aboriginal cultures, stripped of political correctness but nonetheless deeply sympathetic: if the Europeans viewed these people as noble savages, this film treatment shows them not only in all their savagery, but, more importantly, all their nobility. Two great cultures meet in an uneasy truce: we observe the superstitions and spirituality, wisdom and folly – and, ultimately, both the terrifying inhumanity and the glorious humanity – of each in a film that takes us far from what we know to give us a glimpse of the other. Even, perhaps, the Other.
THE NEW WORLD, THE MISSION, APOCALYPTO
Available at Videomatica