Black Robe

(Bruce Beresford, Canada/Australia, 1991)


I am not a big fan of Australian director Bruce Beresford. Whenever I see his films I feel like I’m back in secondary school, being force-fed a novel by L.P. Hartley, E.M. Forster, or Aldous Huxley.

I find myself trying to comprehend issues and ideas that obviously mattered to high culture several decades ago – the period in which Beresford’s artistic imagination was (it seems) definitively formed. But these issues and ideas often don’t matter so much, or matter in the same way, today.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with telling a story about the past, and in a way that derives from the past. But somewhere, somehow, there has to be some link, even a subtle one of emotion or atmosphere, between a story and the contemporaneous world to which it is addressed, in order for it to really work. It’s this link I have trouble finding in Beresford’s films; Black Robe didn’t solve my problem.

Black Robe (adapted from his own novel by Brian Moore, also the source for Roeg’s odd Cold Heaven [1990]) treats a familiar story: the one about the auto-destruction of a too-sane, too-civilised, rigid, Christian social order, when faced with a contrary, supposedly primitive social system that is sensual, canny, adaptive and profoundly mystical.

In cinema this story has often been told, and sometimes very well indeed. Think of John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), that great Australian oddity The Back of Beyond (1954) or, supremely, Michael Powell’s fable of nuns going crazy atop an Eastern mountain, Black Narcissus (1946) – a film which still seems infinitely more modern than Black Robe.

Even Dances with Wolves (1990), wet as it often is, is suffused with an admirable loathing for the white, Western civilisation that gave rise to it. Beresford tantalises us with the prospect of taking the principal character Fr Laforgue (and all he stands for) to his bitter end, his complete unravelling. But, as he does right throughout the movie, he cops out.

Black Robe is not without its interesting elements. Although Laforgue regularly refers to the Indians around him as savages and barbarians, the film of course presents them quite differently. Laforgue’s young assistant Daniel (Aden Young) at one point describes these Indians as the "true Christians", for the way they freely share all their possessions, and easily forgive one another. In this sense, they could be seen as spiritual cousins to the Sioux of Dances With Wolves. But, thankfully, they aren’t as squeaky clean as Costner’s imaginary true Americans: these noble savages at least scowl, fart and satisfy their impulses – especially the sexual impulse.

Laforgue is a curious character. You can’t possibly like the guy – he’s stupid and insensitive all the way, pressing upon Indians in their dying moments to accept Christian baptism. Lothaire Bluteau, who was so painfully angelic in that god-awful movie Jésus of Montréal (1989), looks a little blankly uncertain himself as to how we are meant to regard Laforgue. The Indians call him a demon throughout; it would have been interesting to have really made him demonic – a profane saint like Buñuel‘s Simon of the Desert, driven to insane actions by dark, perverse passions that his higher self cannot ever countenance. Or Laforgue could have been made into a sublime, suffering hero, too sensitive for the dirty material world. Beresford gestures meekly in both directions, but never decides on or develops either one.

Ultimately, I couldn’t help wondering all the way through Black Robe: what’s the reason for spinning this story, here and now? As they say in another solemn period film about religion and colonialism, The Mission (1986): "Begone, Priest!"

MORE Beresford: Rich in Love

© Adrian Martin February 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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