Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

FOUR NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES Piety and Cruelty in 'Black Robe'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

FOUR NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES Piety and Cruelty in 'Black Robe'

Article excerpt

'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 of 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. …

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