Director: Bruce Beresford
Stars: Lothaire Bluteau, Aden Young, August Schellenberg, Tantoo Cardinal, Sandrine Holt
In my mind, the past 40 years have yielded three masterful English language historical films about thwarted attempts by Jesuit missionaries to spread Christianity to new frontiers. Those three films are Roland Joffe’s 1986 film The Mission, set in South America in the mid-1700s; Bruce Beresford’s 1991 film Black Robe, set in Canada in the 1630s; and Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, set in Japan around the same time. These films have experienced differing receptions: Joffe’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was nominated for seven Oscars, and its Morricone score still pervades popular culture; Beresford’s film won a smattering of Canadian and Australian film awards, as well as the Golden Reel Award for highest grossing Canadian film that year, but didn’t exactly set the world alight (later Golden Reel recipients include Johnny Mnemonic and Air Bud, just for context); and shockingly, Scorsese’s film caused nary a murmur on its release, despite its status as a long-gestating passion project from a director widely considered the premier filmmaker of the era. While my focus in this review is squarely on Black Robe (given Down Under Flix’s Antipodean brief and the film’s status as a Canadian-Australian co-production from an Australian director), I am also fascinated by how these films complement and diverge from each other, and will touch on this later.
The protagonist of Black Robe is Jesuit priest Father LaForgue, played by Lothaire Bluteau, a Canadian actor who headlined the acclaimed Jesus of Montreal two years earlier. LaForgue embarks on a 1500 mile journey through severe wintry terrain accompanied by Daniel (Aden Young) and a posse of Algonquin Indians headed by Chomina (August Schellenberg). They encounter opposition in the form of the violent Iriquois tribe, and LaForgue’s compassion for his resistant flock is tested.
I’ve frequently sung the praises of director Beresford, whose latest film, Ladies in Black, is currently in theatres and is an absolute delight; you can find my earlier reviews of Beresford films here, here, here, here, here and here. Black Robe capped a trio of films, preceded by Driving Miss Daisy and Mister Johnson, that constitutes one of the best one-two-three punches of the late twentieth century. That one-two-three punch should have elevated Beresford to all-timer status. But while Driving Miss Daisy was a major commercial success and scored the Academy Award for Best Picture (albeit with no Best Director nomination for Beresford), there was no real ripple effect on those later films. Mister Johnson was, Beresford notes, “seen by no-one” despite being “the best reviewed film I ever made by far” (now a Criterion title), and Black Robe, despite wide acclaim, made only a minor dent in the public consciousness. The minimal ripple effect is unsurprising; as Beresford observes in There’s a Fax from Bruce, a collection of published correspondence from the 1990s between the director and regular producer Sue Milliken, “no-one who saw Daisy will want to see Black Robe” despite it being “the best thing I’ve done” and a film that “will grow with the passing of time”.
With its superior craftsmanship and intelligent treatment of the material – adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel – Black Robe is, indeed, a film built to last. The production reunited Beresford with several regular collaborators, including composer Georges Delerue, cinematographer Peter James (who would turn his lens to another famous film about survival in harsh environs, Alive, two years later), editor Tim Wellburn, and production designer Herbert Pinter, all of whom do exemplary work. Praise is especially due to James’ painterly compositions. The film is not visually stylish in the same way as The Mission and Silence – the former milks its lush South American setting, while the latter homages the aesthetic of Akira Kurosawa and other classic Japanese filmmakers, as well as featuring some of Scorsese’s own stylistic flourishes – but it is visually striking. Like Manganinnie, reviewed recently on Down Under Flix, Black Robe captures an inhospitable landscape, and here that inhospitable landscape is both environmental and spiritual. Black Robe also contains some of the most violent moments I can recall seeing in a Beresford production, but the film overall takes a leaf from George Miller’s Mad Max – a film Beresford has expressed great admiration for – in that violent acts are rarely gratuitously shown, but rather conjured through editing and sound and predominantly left to the imagination (editor Wellburn, it’s worth noting, worked on Mad Max 2).
LaForgue is a somewhat inexpressive, prickly character, especially in comparison to the protagonists of the other titles spotlighted at the start of this review; he does not radiate the benevolent warmth of Jeremy Irons’ Father Gabriel in The Mission, or command sympathy like Andrew Garfield’s anguished Father Rodrigues in Silence. Actor Bluteau conveys the contradictory tides of the character – his conflicting feelings of defeat and conviction, his strained compassion and increasing distaste for his immovable flock– and these tides also cut to the fundamental differences between Black Robe and the two aforementioned films.
The Mission, Black Robe, and Silence are all fundamentally tragedies, but of different stripes. In The Mission, Irons’ Father Gabriel is a pure priestly figure whose mission crumbles under the force of political machinations, while Robert De Niro’s Captain Mendoza, redeemed from life of transgression through Christianity, is forced to turn back to violence, adopting the wrong way for the right cause. In Silence, Scorsese grapples with the crises of three lone priests in a foreign, violent land, with its central figure, Garfield’s Father Rodrigues, forced by Japanese authorities to choose between publicly renouncing God to save innocent lives, damning himself in the process, or holding fast to his beliefs and in turn dooming others to death. It’s a dramatisation of spiritual torment through an existential lens, and is consistent with the existential themes and intermingling of the sacred and profane threaded throughout Scorsese’s filmography. Black Robe neither romanticises its protagonists like The Mission nor dips its toes into existential waters like Silence; it presents, in Beresford’s characteristically straightforward, unaffected style, an unseen but unrelenting spiritual warfare between good and evil, enacted and manifested through the violent clash of cultures and beliefs. It’s an exceptional film and a jewel in the crown of Beresford’s varied filmography.