Piety and Cruelty in 'Black Robe'

'BLACK Robe," the new historical drama by Bruce Beresford, indicates his continuing interest with the interaction between white and nonwhite cultures.Not that he considers this a special calling, or even owns up to it readily. At a film festival last year, I asked Mr. Beresford if he had a particular concern with racial issues, since his last two pictures had centered on black characters in white-controlled soci- eties. Beresford replied that he just wanted to tell good stories, and it was a coincidence that his latest movies dealt with race: "Driving Miss Daisy," about an African-American chauffeur employed by a wealthy white woman, and "Mister Johnson," about a Nigerian clerk working for the British in colonial West Africa. Many filmmakers with a social or artistic agenda like to keep this quiet, presenting their movies as "plain entertainment" and letting audiences discover the deeper meanings for themselves. Beresford may be sincere about "just telling good stories," but the "coincidence" of racial awareness now involves another movie. "Black Robe" is about the cultural clash that arose when European missionaries visited Canada in the 17th century, determined to impose Christianity on native peoples who - to the chagrin o f their self-appointed saviours - proved to be quite satisfied with the faith they already had, and felt no need for a new one. In its concern for certain kinds of authenticity, such as the use of native American languages, "Black Robe" recalls the cultural awareness that made "Dances With Wolves" less stereotypical than many earlier westerns. "Black Robe" fudges its commitment to historical truth in some ways - for instance, since the Huron language is extinct, it uses the Cree and Mohawk languages, evidently considered "close enough" by the filmmakers. But at least the intentions are good. The quest for authenticity extends to the richly fabricated settings and costumes of the film as well, and to areas of behavior that many filmgoers may wish were less graphically shown, including scenes of sex and torture. Yet while the film's interest in persuasive details is often impressive, this ultimately stifles any spontaneity the story might have had. The action frequently seems stiff and cold, as if the look of the picture was more important than ideas and emotions. The movie was reportedly shot in sequence - that is, the scenes were filmed in the order they take in the finished narrative - and although this allows Beresford to capture the changing climate of the Canadian seasons, it appears to have locked the production into an inflexible schedule that squeezed out on-the-spot inspiration. The resulting atmosphere reminds me of Akira Kurosawa's epic "Kagemusha," which has a static quality that betrays its origin in a series of colorful but motionless paintings. The acting doesn't help. Lothaire Bluteau, best known as the hero in "Jesus of Montreal," spent months researching his role as a priest with willfully blind faith, yet his performance seems driven more by technique than by empathy. The rest of the cast has similar problems bringing Brian Moore's screenplay to life; only Sandrine Holt and Yvan Labelle make a vivid impression. Even before its release, "Black Robe" drew attention for treating religious issues not often raised in commercial movies - such as the question of whether baptism is a ritual with inherent value or, more profoundly, a symbol that must be coupled with deep inner transformation to be meaningful. Actually, treatment of religion is not that rare in recent American cinema, as shown by movies from "Tender Mercies" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" to "The Rapture" and even "Star Trek V." "Dances With Wolves" has been criticized, however, for romanticizing "Indian ways" without giving thought to the white hero's religious background. "Black Robe" corrects this imbalance by portraying both sides of the religious equation. But it oversimplifies all the issues involved, allowing only a vague under- standing of why beliefs have evolved and why they are held in particular ways by particular people. It is an ambitious and well-meaning movie. But its achievements are very limited.

Rated R for strong violence. and sensuality.

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