It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
`Black Robe" tells the story of the first contacts between the Huron Indians of Quebec and the Jesuit missionaries from France who came to convert them to Catholicism, and ended up delivering them into the hands of their enemies. Those first brave Jesuit priests did not realize, in the mid-17th century, that they were pawns of colonialism, of course; they were driven by a burning faith and an absolute conviction that they were doing the right thing. Only much later was it apparent that the European settlement of North America led to the destruction of the original inhabitants, not their salvation.
The film, a bleak and dour affair that seems filmed mostly under gray, glowering skies, stars Lothaire Bluteau in the central role of young Father Laforgue. Bluteau’s name may not ring a bell, but if you saw "Jesus of Montreal" you will recognize him immediately as the young actor who played the title role, gaunt and intense. In this film, he undertakes a long and arduous journey in winter, guided by the Algonquins, threatened by the Iroquois. It is a torturous experience, and "Black Robe" visualizes it in one of the most realistic depictions of Indian life I have seen.
The architectural details of the Indian dwellings, their methods of hunting and food procurement, the way they used absolute cooperation and trust of each other as a weapon against the deadly climate - these are all made clear in the movie. It also becomes clear that the Indians had their own religious and belief systems already in place, and that none of them had much use for Jesus and the other gifts of Christianity. The most pathetic character in the movie is a "converted" Indian, whose crucifix around his neck represents not a leap of faith, but an accommodation of convenience with those who could give him what he wanted.
The first contacts between North American Indians and Europeans were probably a great deal more like those depicted in "Black Robe" than like the stirring adventures in "Dances with Wolves." Both sides were no doubt motivated much more by matters of religious belief and personal destiny than by a desire to get to know one another.