Sunday, September 22, 2013

Black Robe (1991)

Huron Chief: A demon cannot feel grief. Are you a man?
Father Laforgue: Yes.
Huron Chief: You must help us Blackrobe. Do you love us?
Father Laforgue: Yes.
Huron Chief: Then baptize us.~ from Black Robe (1991)
I have been wanting to see the film Black Robe since it came out over twenty years ago but have been putting it off because I did not think I could bear the violence. I finally watched it on a Netflix DVD. Actually, it is not anywhere near as violent as some other films I have seen, although it is extremely scary and full of suspense. I heard that some Native American groups claimed that the film made Native Americans look bad. That would be the same as saying we should not watch The Tudors because it makes the English look bad. From what I have read about the lives of the North American Jesuit Martyrs, the film does an excellent job in accurately portraying the customs and habits of the various tribes who figure in the drama, although it does not come near to showing the actual horror of a full-scale Iroquois torture session, which would be unwatchable. Instead, all that is needed is for a brief appearance of a Jesuit priest who has survived the torture and bears the scars.  I assume the priest is supposed to be St. Isaac Jogues, who escaped only to later return and be martyred. When the young Jesuit, who is the protagonist of the film, meets the severely maimed priest, he is deeply moved and resolves to leave his comfortable life in France and go as a missionary to Quebec. Heroism for the love of God is contagious.

It is made clear from the beginning of the film that Father Laforgue seeks nothing but the glory of God and the salvation of souls. There is absolutely no other motive for him to leave his world behind and go on what the more skeptical would call a suicide mission. He becomes a missionary because he is convinced that, according to the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus, the natives will be lost for all eternity unless they accept the Gospel. Now being a young Catholic and meeting the tests of the world for the first time is always difficult. Being a young religious, without mentor or guide, confronting one's humanity in the context of an alien culture, is excruciating. The filmmakers do a good job in depicting the various levels of emotional turmoil that Fr. Laforgue endures so that even the physical discomforts of life in the raw wilderness appear to be nothing compared to his agony of soul. The breathtaking cinematography of Black Robe conveys the vastness of the region, the weakness of man against the forces of nature, and the utter isolation experienced by the young priest. In his interior dark night there are chinks of light, however, as he takes in the majesty of his surroundings.

While the filmmakers excel at accurately recreating the details of wilderness life, it is surprising to see how many well-known practices of Catholicism are a bit fuzzy. For instance, I never heard that saliva could be used for baptism. And it has been my understanding that the Jesuits were exceedingly careful about whom they baptized, making certain that the catechumens thoroughly understood the faith before receiving the Sacraments, except, of course, for infants. The baptism scene at the end shows the catechumens being sprinkled with a little water on their foreheads, Presbyterian-style; I thought the water had to be poured.

In spite of those annoying but few inaccuracies, the gist of the film is powerful, as summed up in the final scene, when Fr. Laforgue stands at the foot of the cross and experiences divine love. There can be no doubt, seeing the young priest bereft of everything, that he has received a supernatural gift. Love is the reason for the journey, but it is love that is the result of dying to self and being transformed into Christ.



MomVee said...

If you ever have a chance, I highly recommend a visit to the Martyrs' Shrine in Auriesville, New York. There you can see the very landscape in which these events took place, as well as worship and confess in the church on site. There is holy water available collected from the stream where René Goupil's body was buried. A lot to see and do and an unmistakable atmosphere of holiness.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for mentioning the Shrine! I have been there many times and I agree there is a powerful atmosphere of holiness.