“God should have made me a Jesuit. You have answers for everything.”
-Samuel de Champlain, in Black Robe
Answers are not easily found in Black Robe, a film based on the novel of the same name. Set in 17th-century Quebec, a group of Algonquin Indians guides a Jesuit missionary on an arduous 1500-mile journey to a mission in Huron lands. The relationships between the Jesuit Father Laforgue, his French attendant Daniel, and the Amerindians walk a fine line between mutual dependence and cultural mistrust. As one Frenchman points out, the question of who is colonizing who is muddied. Father Laforgue suggests that the future is written in the harsh realities of the conditions surrounding them: “If the winter doesn’t kill us the Indians might. If they don’t it could be the English; so keep your faith and may death find you with God in mind”. And down comes winter…
From the French’s first interactions with the Amerindians, there was an intention to ‘civilize’ the native peoples, a process in which conversion would play a pivotal role (Ronda). Samuel de Champlain, who is represented briefly at the beginning of the film, fears for the lives of the Jesuit priests in an unforgiving terrain. In the film, as well as in reality, De Champlain ultimately sends these soldiers of God into the far wilds, perhaps to become martyrs. Jaenen quotes the commandant: “It is a great wrong to let so many men be lost and see them perish at our door, without rendering them the succour… which can only be given through the help of princes and ecclesiastics, who alone have the power to do this” (268).
De Champlain’s words highlight the struggle that Father Laforgue and his Algonquin companions continually encounter throughout Black Robe. While the Glory of God is his strength, physically Laforgue is helpless in New France’s deceptively splendid landscape. This vulnerability is underscored when Laforgue finds himself lost (physically as well as spiritually) in the great temple of the forest. Despite the “New World’s” longstanding inhabitants’ ability to thrive under harsh conditions, the French newcomers continually refuse to believe that Amerindians have anything of any cultural or spiritual importance to teach. As the young Frenchman Daniel suggests, “They are true Christians; they live for each other”. In his article, “Cunning Pedagogics: The Encounter Between the Jesuit Missionaries and Amerindians in 17th-Century New France,” Michael Welton skilfully establishes the “fanatical assault” (113) on the cultural practices of Amerindians, as well as the deceptions Jesuit priests employed in order to convert them to Christianity.
Laforgue, played by Montreal-native Lothaire Bluteau, is not a bad man; he is a 17th-century French man, and one of severe devotion. He cares for his Algonquin and Huron brethren within the prescribed measure of his faith and is eager to offer salvation to them. Prior to Black Robe, Bluteau took a messianic turn in Jesus of Montreal, which was another great performance for him. In this scene, Bluteau the perfects the cultural boast, in which Father Laforgue demonstrates reading and writing to members of the Algonquin tribe. Although the Algonquins are clearly overwhelmed by this heretofore unseen ability to decode words without speaking, Laforgue’s lesson does not have the intended effect. Despite this particular scene’s ability to communicate divergent realms of experience between the two peoples, Wogan makes a convincing case that “skepticism is essential when considering […] accounts of awe at European writing” (420).Canadian actor August Schellenberg plays Chomina, the leader of the Algonquin travel party. For his dynamic portrayal of a man who questions his world as he defends it against the Jesuit priesthood, Schellenberg won the 1991 Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. In her debut role, Sandrine Holt is bold and thoughtful as Chomina’s perpetually-dewy daughter Annuka. Alberta-born Tantoo Cardinal is flawless as Chomina’s wife, who plays an essential role in Chomina’s conscience. Tantoo’s performance accentuates the hierarchical differences between the French families that Laforgue was born into, and the Amerindian families that he does not entirely understand.
There must be no better backdrop for the cinematographer than the forceful majesty of the Algonquin territory. This wilderness is interwoven with flashbacks of Laforgue’s frilly-collared existence in France, where he received his priesthood training from a man who is a visual lesson of the hazards for the Jesuit ministry in New France. Long days of paddling, cramped quarters, and mischievous, hat-stealing children are soon the least of the priest’s concerns. When Chomina’s distrust of Father Laforgue is reinforced by his obscure dreams and his band’s suspicions, members collide with a neighbouring group of Iroquois, where Father Laforgue learns the true meaning of barbarism.
Jaenen, Cornelius J. “Problems of Assimilation in New France, 1603-1645.” French Historical Studies 4.3 (1966): 265-289. JSTOR. 2 October 2012.
Ronda, James P. “The European Indian: Jesuit Civilization Planning in New France.” Church History 41.3 (1972): 385-395. EBSCOHost Academic Search Premier. 2 October 2012.
Welton, Michael. “Cunning Pedagogics: The Encounter Between the Jesuit Missionaries and Amerindians in 17th-Century New France.” Adult Education Quarterly 55.2 (2005): 101-115. doi:10.1177/0741713604271853
Wogan, Peter. “Perceptions of European Literacy in Early Contact Situations.” Ethnohistory 41.3 (1994): 407-429. JSTOR. 2 October 2012.