'Black Robe's' savage frontier has no room for innocently dancing wolves

November 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Black Robe" is "Dances With Wolves" through a glass darkly.It's a wonderful movie, as was "Dances" -- but it's 'N wonderful in a different way.

"Dances" was indeed a dance -- a minuet with a romantic vision of a Native American people who were eco-correct and oh-so-wonderfully noble and altruistic. It may have been dreadful anthropology, but it was a platform from which to critique the hallowed myth of manifest destiny and white superiority. And, like any fairy tale, it childishly cleaved the world into moral opposites: good (red) and bad (white).

"Black Robe," taken from a novel and screenplay by Brian Mooreis more the result of an adult imagination: No single moral line may be drawn through its materials and its victories are tiny, its confusions many and its ironies in some cases too painful to watch. Even its landscapes are sinister: no glorious sunsets and sweeping seas of prairie grass here -- it's set in a wintry Eden, majestic but so austere and merciless, so full of cold black water and harsh white snow that nature's indifference is almost a character in the drama.

Directed by the great Australian Bruce Beresford, it restores to his sporadic career some of the epic complexity he brought to "Breaker Morant," another film that questioned the glory of crusades in far off places.

In this case, the far-off place is Canada and the crusade is Catholicism. In 1634, a young French priest is assigned a formidable task: to journey upriver to a Huron encampment and assist the priests on site in their conversion of the heathens. Of course we may view such a mission as an essay in folly to begin with -- after all, nowadays concepts of moral superiority are clearly ethnocentric; how can one save the souls of a people unaware they ever lost them?

But Father Laforge has no such doubts. Played with ascetic intensity by the brilliant French-Canadian actor Lothaire Blutheau Jesus of Montreal"), the father sets out with a small band of friendly Algonquin to make the upriver voyage. He is eager for the test; eager to throw his flesh against the heathen fury. He is, after all, carrying a precious cargo: free tickets to paradise.

Of course, nothing is as it seems. The "friendly" Algonquin aren't so friendly and they aren't even very hygienic: When a brave in a crowded tepee breaks wind, you know you're a long distance from the comforting pieties of "Dances With Wolves."

On this frontier, nothing is easy, and no friendly wolves come tcavort innocently in the high grass. We're in the stone age, and in a world so primordial and savage that the father's Catholicism quickly comes to seem like just another racket.

But the thrust of the film isn't the tinniness of his own system of belief -- it's not that cynical -- so much as his acceptance of others and his slow voyage away from Eurocentrism. The trip quickly resolves itself into pure ordeal as his fellows desert him, and then return, only to be put upon by a savage tribe.

Much of "Black Robe" is not pleasant: Beresford is not demure about the brutalities of stone age battle and the treatment of captives from one group of indigenous North Americans by another. But amid this savage gore, the true trajectory is inward. Father Laforge's trip is only secondarily upriver; it is more importantly into himself, where he learns the lesson that all men are brothers and that "heathen" and "Christian" are really concepts without meaning. It's a dance with humanity.

'Black Robe'

Starring Lothaire Blutheau.

Directed by Bruce Beresford.

Released by Samuel Goldwyn.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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