The Sioux call Kevin Costner’s Lieutenant Dunbar Dances With Wolves because that’s what he does; the Algonquins call Lothaire Bluteau’s Father Laforgue Black Robe because that’s what he wears. Laforgue is a French Jesuit priest arriving in Quebec in 1634 to begin a brutally hazardous journey up the St. Lawrence River to bring the good word to the Huron Indians. Helping him are a group of Algonquins led by Chomina (August Schellenberg) and his family; accompanying them is Daniel (Aden Young), a French carpenter and translator, who falls into instant lust for Chomina’s exquisite daughter, Annuka (Sandrine Holt).
Though the film embraces the Indians’ culture and uses subtitles to translate their languages, it’s hardly a rip-off of Costner’s three-hour Oscar winner. Writer Brian Moore (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) has adapted the acclaimed novel he wrote in 1985, and director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) keeps throwing easy assumptions back in our faces. Black Robe runs only 100 minutes, and yet its physical and spiritual challenges have an epic scope. Cinematographer Peter James (Mister Johnson) captures the fierce beauty of the wilderness without the usual overlay of Hollywood gloss.
Bluteau, who starred in Jesus of Montreal, is remarkable as the priest who whips himself with branches to quiet his sexual urges but can find no method to quell his self-doubt. Though Father Laforgue is at the center of the movie, the Indians – who are neither canonized nor patronized – are its focus. Watching Chomina (given unforced dignity by Schellenberg) use his dreams as a guide for life or Annuka allow herself to be violated so her father can escape the torturous fate the Iroquois visited on her mother and brother, Laforgue rethinks his notions of sin and redemption. In the course of this raw and jolting adventure, Beresford takes full measure of what is lost when tradition is trampled in the name of an intransigent faith.