Thursday, October 06, 2011

Black Robe.

On Tuesday, The Pittsford Perennialist offered an appreciation of Bruce Beresford's 1991 film Black Robe. Based on a novel of the same title by Brian Moore, Black Robe tells the story of Father Paul Laforgue, a (fictional) French Jesuit missionary in seventeenth-century Canada. As the Perennialist writes, Black Robe "is a story of conversion, not so much of the Indians but of the priest, and not to some politically correct relativistic eco-religion as you might expect, but to the hard gospel of love as preached by Jesus Christ." That's a fairly accurate summary of the film as well as the novel on which it was based; I won't reveal exactly how Laforgue's conversion takes place because I want readers to discover Black Robe for themselves. See the movie and read the book - you won't regret having done so.

As an incidental sidenote, the Perennialist's linking of Black Robe and The Last of the Mohicans sent me on an affectionate journey down memory lane. The American literature curriculum at my public high school laid heavy emphasis on nineteenth-century classics: we read Hawthorne and Melville, Emerson and Thoreau, Longfellow and Whittier - and little written after 1900, the most notable exception being The Great Gatsby (to this day, incidentally, I've read only one book written by John Steinbeck and none by Ernest Hemingway). We also dipped into James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, on which account we viewed the then-recent 1992 film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis. I haven't seen the film again since, so I don't think that I could accurately say that it made a lasting impression on me. On the other hand, I still remain sincerely grateful for the quality of the education that I received in the public schools of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

I agree with the Perennialist when he writes that Black Robe is a better film than The Mission, but we part company in our views on the latter film: this may seem like a surprising admission for a Jesuit to make, but I've never cared for The Mission. I didn't see The Mission until I was in the novitiate, but I was biased against the film before I ever saw it. As a long-time fan of Black Robe, I resented the fact that The Mission was much more popular; the ubiquity of Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" (sorry, folks - it's schmaltz) also gave me certain preconceived notions about the film for which that piece was written. Much like "Gabriel's Oboe," The Mission proved too sentimental for my taste - and, for lack of a better way to put it, too 'heroic' in a purely secular sense. Compared with The Mission, I find both the film and novel versions of Black Robe to be stronger and more realistic in their depiction of spiritual struggle.

In tandem with something I once wrote about the idea of suggesting Of Gods and Men as an "introduction to Christianity," I would not recommend The Mission as an introduction to the Jesuits or to anything else; on the other hand, I might very well recommend Black Robe in such a context. Of course, Black Robe also deserves to be appreciated on its own merits and not merely as an "introduction" to something else. If you have not seen the film or read the novel, I urge you to give both a try. AMDG.


At 10/08/2011 7:44 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I am curious whether you have read Shusaku Endo's The Silence whose protagonist is a Jesuit. I wonder what you thought of that depiction of Jesuits.

At 10/09/2011 11:13 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Yes, I've read Endo's Silence - I thought about mentioning it in this post, as Black Robe touches on some similar themes. Silence is a great book - I read it one year during Holy Week, and it affected me very deeply. (I also read Endo's Life of Jesus shortly after that - it was thought-provoking, particularly in its treatment of Judas, but didn't pack anything like the devastating emotional punch of Silence.)

I'm inclined to say that Silence is the best piece of Jesuit-inspired fiction that I've ever read. There are apparently plans to make a film of it, though I'm not sure the intense interiority of the novel will translate well to the screen.

At 10/09/2011 8:40 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I feel much the same way you do about it. I read Endo's Life of Jesus while I was in Japan, but have no strong memories of it. The Silence is unforgettable. I just loaned my copy of it to my parish priest who wanted to read it. I saw those bronze plaques they describe in the book when I was in Nagasaki.

At 10/10/2011 1:52 PM, Blogger 44 said...

Oh no... I love The Mission, and Gabriel's Oboe! And that fact that the movie shares with a wider auidience that the Jesuits would not stop following the call of the Spirit -- even if it led to their own suppression. Benicio delToro is to be in the Endo movie. He's one of my favorites so I look forward to the opening, in '13. Love your blog.

At 10/10/2011 3:07 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Good to hear from you. It's fine with me that you like The Mission - the film may not be my cup of tea personally, but I'm happy to acknowledge the positive effect that it has had for many other viewers. I wish that Black Robe touched as many people, though the fact that it tells a somewhat darker, grimmer story probably means it will never be as popular as The Mission.

It will be interesting to see how the Endo book translates to film. As I wrote before, I'm concerned that it the protagonist's inner struggle won't be easy to portray on the film. Some comments that Martin Scorsese has made about the project also give me cause for concern: it sounded like Scorsese was going to play up the culture clash element of the story in a way that might conflict with Endo's intentions. Even so, I hope my worries are unfounded, and I look forward to seeing the movie when it is released in a couple years.

At 10/10/2011 3:10 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...

Another interesting sidenote on all of this: in checking on the progress of Scorsese's film adaptation of Silence in preparing to respond to 44, I found that a Japanese film based on the novel was released forty years ago. It would be interesting to see that movie - and to compare it with the new one.


Post a Comment

<< Home