Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Black Robe

There is a wonderful moment in 'Black Robe' - the film of Brian Moore's novel - when the priest (played by the exceptional Lothaire Bluteau) criticizes his native traveling companions because they do not question their way of life. The implication being because it is inferior to the priest's.

The point at issue is that they have asked for some of the tobacco the priest is carrying upriver (as trading goods) to be shared as a reward for the care they have shown him (and as an expression of natural generosity). All that they have is each others, all they do not, they suffer in absence together.

It is the turning point of the film - the priest's willful ignorance of those in whose hands he lives that is to be exposed as he travels up river, slowly peeling away his complacent doctrine and starkly ushering him into a shared humanity, a faith that is a humble expression of love.

This is all set in the early seventeenth century and the Jesuit missions to the native communities in North America.

Moore's conviction is that it were better that they did not come - the natural faith of each native American grouping is a living commitment to a place, fully adaptive to the hard realities of nature. It can only be disrupted by the faith, the greed and the disease of the invader.

It is a more realistic treatment than either "The Mission' that deals of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay a century later or the romanticism of 'Dances with Wolves' set a two centuries further on. The natives here are fully human - they lust, they scheme, they kill - but in a way that is bound by traditions that limit and submit to a collective wisdom.

It is a deeply beautifully film (the scenery of a Canadian wildness seduces) and it unfolds its contrasts slowly.

There are moments of sublime irony - most notably when the priest asserts the 'reality of paradise' as the 'truth' against the simple certainties of the native Americans' expectations. You mean there is no tobacco or women in paradise? You do what exactly? Need nothing? And 'adore' God? This is meant to be truth?

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