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In the 17th century a Jesuit priest and a young companion are escorted through the wilderness of Quebec by Algonquin Indians to find a distant mission in the dead of winter. The Jesuit experiences a spiritual journey while his young companion falls in love with the Algonquin chief's beautiful daughter underneath the imposing and magnificent mountains. Dread and death follows them upriver. Written by
Keith Loh <email@example.com>
This exquisitely photographed film portrays the cultural clash between Europeans (in this case the Europeans happen to be French) and various native tribes in seventeenth century North America without romanticizing either French culture or that of the native peoples.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this film from my perspective was utter arrogance of the Europeans to come into a wild country presuming the superiority of their way of life over that of the indigenous peoples. No character seemed to understand that better than Father LaForgue, admirably portrayed by Lothaire Bluteau. The good Father soldiers on despite the evidence that his presence in the vast wilderness of North America won't make a whit of difference in his life or in the lives of the people he has vowed to introduce into "paradise." The Algonquin guides worry about their attachment to the "demon" LaForgue and wonder whether they shouldn't just kill him. Even LaForgue's young assistant, Daniel, wonders how the presence of a French missionary makes the the native people's lives any better. The Iroquois, who suffer from a harsh depiction in the film, take a more economically-based view of LaForgue -- he and Daniel are seen by the Iroquois as currency to be exchanged for guns.
An aside concerning the Iroquois. While the violence depicted in the film is no doubt accurate, what the film does not reveal is that the Iroquois likely became decidedly more hostile when the French began to assist old enemies, such as the Algonquin, in traveling into hunting grounds that had previously been Iroquois territory.
But back to LaForgue, whose journey is the primary emphasis of the film. He has journeyed, apparently from a life of some privilege in France, leaving behind a doting mother and (perhaps) a beautiful young woman. He has journeyed away from the "pleasures of the flesh," lingering on the sight of a couple making love in the communal tipi and later admitting to Daniel that he, LaForgue, lusts after the young Alogonquin woman,Annuka, with whom Daniel had already struck up a sexual relationship. He gets lost on the journey in the cathedral-like forest and rejoices and being found by Algonquin hunters, who express some bemusement that the Black Robe got lost in the first place. Finally, he journeys to the Hurons and a village beset by smallpox, where baptism has been sold to the natives as a miracle cure as much as it has a key to salvation.
By avoiding the tendency of films depicting Native American life to romanticize, Bruce Beresford has captured more profoundly the daily harsh realities of life for the peoples inhabiting the northeastern portion of North America at the arrivals of the first trickling of Europeans. Neither way of life is ultimately depicted as superior to the other: each simply is. This is not a "feel-good" film. Instead it is a realistic, thought-provoking tale of a journey of a man, of cultures, and of life itself. Simply a brilliant film.
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