BLACK ROBE (1991)

Reviews

Critics tended to give Black Robe mixed to favorable reviews, citing the award-winning cinematography of Peter James in capturing the beautiful but forbidding Canadian wilderness.  But the main concern of reviewers was for the "truthful" or "raw" depiction of relations between the French and the Algonquins and other tribes.  Frequently contrasted with Dances with Wolves, Black Robe is widely considered a more accurate and less fantasy-filled account of white men's encounters with natives.  Critics find the film enjoyable from an intellectual point of view, as an interrogation of issues related to religion and intercultural communication, but often find it a somewhat dull, plodding narrative.

Dunphy, Christine.  "Stylish Canadian epic puts focus on religious debate."  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford. Toronto Star  4 Oct. 1991: D18.

Dunphy praises the film for its beauty but focuses primarily on its meticulous attention to representing fairly both the French and the native tribes in 17th century Canada.  She attests that the film is thoughtful and "scrupulous," but "not necessarily . . . enjoyable."  The reviewer feels that the drama of the film is sacrificed for a greater sense of detachment, a distant look at these cultures, which "stems from the distant, oblique performance of Lothaire Bluteau . . . as Father Laforgue."  Despite her appreciation of the film's attempt to document its subject meticulously, she suggests that its accuracy is unimportant compared with its role in "acknowledg[ing] the conflicts that started then and continue today stem[ming] from two sets of the best of intentions."

Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford.  Chicago Sun Times  1 Nov. 1991. http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1991/11/678497.html#top

Though, unlike Dunphy, he finds the film's visuals "bleak" and "gray," Ebert shares Dunphy's appreciation of the film's presentation of a more "realistic" presentation of Christian missionaries' experience in a foreign land.  Although he suggests the film is "hard to enjoy," particularly for film audiences not interested in this part of Western history, he seems to praise the film for its rigorous attention to what he assumes are the facts of Jesuit-Algonquin encounters in New France.  However, Ebert also confesses that the ending leaves him in "a state of depressed suspension," as he learns about the mission's ultimate failure, "as if the entire story of 'Black Robe' was a prelude to nothing."

James, Caryn.  "FILM VIEW; Jesuits vs. Indians, With No Villains." Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford. New York Times  17 Nov. 1991: 2.24.

Unlike Dunphy and Ebert, James believes that the film has successfully combined  "high drama with high ideas."  She discusses the real tension Laforgue suffers between his devotion to God and his sexual desires and fear for his life.  But more interesting to James is the tension between two separate worldviews--Jesuit and native American, which are played out in intriguing ways.  She especially appreciates the film's work in "criticizing cultural imperialism without creating villains," especially in "an era of Columbus bashing."  James argues that the film portrays the Algonquins' distrust of the Jesuits' promise of paradise as reasonable but at the same time depicts the Jesuits' evangelizing sympathetically.

Kempley, Rita.  "Black Robe: Dances with Realism."  Rev. of Black Robe,  dir. Bruce Beresford.  Washington Post  8 Nov. 1991:  B07.

Kempley is among the many critics who finds that the film deserves praise for historical accuracy--she says the film "mucks about where the new age western 'Dances with Wolves' dared not put its pretty paw."  However, she also believes that the narrative is lacking as a dramatic narrative: "'Black Robe' has all the costumes, artifacts and scenery right, but then so does a diorama at the history museum."  Though she ends her review with this harsh jibe, Kempley does leave the impression that the film's "raw" quality is something to be admired.

Rozen, Leah.  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford.  People Weekly  18 Nov. 1991:  22.

In more of a blurb than a full-scale review, Rozen echoes the countless critics who consider Black Robe a more realistic improvement upon Dances with Wolves.  She argues that the film "plays more to one's head than one's heart," and suggests that Laforgue realizes the "irony of bringing his Heaven to the Indians in their afterlife when they already have their own paradise on earth."

Schickel, Richard.  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford.  Time  30 Dec. 1991:  71.

In a brief review, Schickel hops onto the critical bandwagon, praising Black Robe for avoiding "anachronistic political correctness," and displaying the natives' "relentlessly cruel, licentious, obscene . . . behavior."  (It should be noted that that Schickel conflates all the natives into the Huron tribe, ignoring distinctions between them, the Iroquois and the Algonquin, and that these attributes do not necessarily apply to every tribe in his estimation or the filmmaker's.) He suggests that the film results with the priest and natives "grant[ing] one another their mutual irredeemability, the dignity of their otherness" and makes us, the audience, feel "the authentic tragedy of their collision."  Subtly, he lauds the film, as other critics do, for telling history without "creating villains."

Simon, John.  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford.  National Review  3 Feb. 1992:  48.

Simon concentrates on the film's imagery, praising Peter James' cinematography and arguing that drama and excitement is conveyed, if subtly, in even the quietest actions.  While others have suggested that Bluteau's performance as Laforgue is too unexpressive, Simon claims that his stoic performance "conveys movingly the uncertainties lurking under religious certainty."  He cites the opening scene as an example of this uncertainty, in which a wide shot of blackness "begins to move and proves to be Laforgue's cloak seen from the back. What better visual metaphor for ambiguity?"  The critic contends that a self-contradictory theme runs throughout the movie, to the point that, he says, "no one emerges a long-range winner in this or any world."  The film's blank message, then, forces the audience to "participate with its own intuition, inferences, insight."

Strickler, Jeff.  "Historical film 'Black Robe' deja vu all over again."  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford. Minneapolis Star Tribune  25 Nov. 1991:  Variety; 7E.

Instead of looking at Black Robe as a departure from Dances with Wolves, as most critics have, Strickler believes that it is a retread of that film, merged with The Mission.  He does follow critical suit by complaining that the film is not as dramatically engaging as it is intellectually interesting and visually stimulating: "As a drama, 'Black Robe' makes a nice travelogue."

Also reviewed by:

Gilbert, Matthew.  "It's 'Dances with Wolves,' only without the dancing."  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford. Boston Globe  8 Nov. 1991:  33.

Johnson, Brian D.  "Epic struggles: revealing the rage when natives meet whites."  Rev. of Black Robe. dir. Bruce Beresford. Maclean's  7 Oct. 1991:  72.

Schuurman, Rev. John.  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford. Hollywood Jesus.  No date given.  www.hollywoodjesus.com/BlackR.htm

Turan, Kenneth.  "An intelligent epic of clashing cultures."  Rev. of Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford.  Los Angeles Times  6 Nov. 1991:  F1.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2000 by Robert F. Kilker, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.

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