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Film / Black Robe

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Jesuit missionary Father LaForgue is anxious to evangelize the indigenous peoples of 17th century interior Canada. He sets out from Quebec with the guidance of Chomina, an experienced Algonquin traveler, Chomina's family, several other natives and the non-Jesuit carpenter, Daniel. LaForgue struggles with his deeply-held religious convictions as he encounters a vast, alien landscape, meets various hostile natives and confronts cultural attitudes he fails to understand.

Black Robe is a 1985 novel by Brian Moore. Moore also wrote the screenplay for the 1991 film of the same name.

This article mainly deals with the film.


This film provides examples of:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Inverted. Chomina explicitly forbids both LaForgue and Daniel to beg when they are to be tortured by the Mohawks, as per local custom this will only make the ordeal far, far worse.
  • Adaptation Personality Change:
    • Father LaForgue is quite self-righteous and judgmental in the book, which earns him no favours. In film, he's instead viciously cynical and very blunt, which also earns him no favours.
    • Daniel actively embraces Going Native and has no moral qualms of any kind, along with continuously calling out LaForgue on his missionary antics. In the film, he's head over heels in love with Annuka and that's all he cares about.
    • Chomina is quite a hot-head in the book and very opportunistic - on top of being a named extra. His film counterpart is far more pragmatic and the voice of calm reason among the Algonquin.
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  • Adapted Out: The two fur traders, Casson and Valliet, first present in Quebec and later saving the remnants of LaForgue expedition, are respectively replaced by two smug asshole merchants in the opening and not present at all in the final part.
  • All There in the Manual: LaForgue's first name is Paul. It's mentioned nowhere in the film.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Subverted. Daniel thinks this of the Iroquois. Chomina points out that that's just how life is there.
  • Anachronism Stew: Joan of Arc wasn't made a saint until 1920.
  • Annoying Arrows: Averted in cringe-inducing detail.
  • Ascended Extra:
    • Chomina is significantly less prominent and important character in the book. Him being a co-lead is probably the biggest deviation in the adaptation.
    • Annuka isn't even named until about half-way through the book.
  • Big Little Man: Father LaForgue is harangued by the shaman Mestigoit, who is filmed close to the camera — it's only when he comes face-to-face with LaForgue (who is sitting down) that we realise how short he is.
  • Bishōnen: Daniel is young, pretty and quite effeminate.
  • Black Cloak: The eponymous "black robe" refers to the Jesuit habits. It's also what the natives call them.
  • Blatant Lies: Daniel claims he wants to accompany LaForgue in his mission "for the greater glory of God", but he's only there for Annuka. The Jesuits still take him along, full aware that he's lying, because they need every little help they can get.
  • Bling of War: As part of the not so different message, right in the opening both de Champlain and Chomina prepare themselves for negotiations by slowly putting on more and more elaborate elements of their formal attire. All while otherwise being very pragmatic men wearing even more pragmatic clothes.
  • Blood from the Mouth: After being shot with an arrow (and still having the arrow-head stuck in his side), Chomina slowly succumbs to his countless wounds and starts coughing blood, more and more as the journey goes on.
  • Bowdlerise: While the film is very graphic and full of violence, it is still toned down when compared with the source material. And more importantly, the dialogues aren't overflowing with profanities, which the Algonquin are particularly fond off in the book. Tropes Are Not Bad, since as a result, at least there are some dialogues, rather than endless stream of crude jokes and teasing of LaForgue.
  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: Since it takes place among the Algonquins, Mohawks and Hurons, it's pretty accurate. Notably, some of the French settlers are also shown wearing bits and pieces of native gear, even de Champlain, who dons a ceremonial cape before negotiating with Chomina.
  • Brutal Honesty: Both LaForgue and Chomina are very open with what they think and what are their chances of succeeding with just about anything are. In case of LaForgue it's implied he got it from his mother.
  • But I Read a Book About It: In the novel, LaForgue ends up stranded and alone. After a moment of panic, his first course of action is grabbing a quasi-manual written by one of the prominent missionaries in the region, containing all sorts of survival tips. Following it allows him to get by long enough for the Algonquin party to return.
  • Clothing Damage: LaForgue and Daniel's clothes gradually get dirtied and torn. LaForgue tears up part of his robe to make a bandage for Chomina and Daniel is wearing buckskins almost exclusively by the end.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: An Algonquin couple has sex in the middle of a tent, with everyone else present and asleep. LaForgue wakes up for a moment, but he stays put and after a brief moment of staring, also goes back to sleep.
  • Composite Character: Chomina in the film is an amalgam of positive traits (and none of their negatives) of both Chomina and Neehatin, packed into a single character.
  • Crisis of Faith: The entire escapade is one huge test of faith for LaForgue.
    LaForgue: I'm afraid of this country. The Devil rules here. Controls the hearts and minds of these poor people.
  • Cult Colony: Invoked, discussed, played with and ultimately subverted, as inspecting this trope is one of the main points of the story. The French settlers mockingly refer to the amount of clergy and missionaries they get, instead of women, merchants and craftsmen to provide any future for their colony, all while other countries provide exactly that to their settlers. The missions themselves are utter failure in their current operation, while the eventual success it still rendered into a pointless exercise in futility by outside factors. However, the religious devotion is still one of the main driving forces for the colonisation, while the Jesuits go into effort that makes even other colonist already in Quebec look like lacking conviction into their endevours.
  • Culture Clash: All the freaking time. Sometimes downright scary, like when like LaForgue tries to explain what writing is and gets taken for a demon when Daniel reads his note without any oral passage of information.
  • Cunning Linguist: Subverted. It is noted even by LaForgue himself that his Algonquin is awful and each time a new group or a tribe meets him, they instantly pick up how strange his speech patterns are. He still does his best to speak to them in their own language rather than French though.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: At least in the book. In a moment of weakness, LaForgue masturbates, while watching from hiding Daniel and Annuka having sex. Once he realises what he just did, he disrobes and self-flagellates himself with a tree branch. Keep in mind masturbation is considered a sinful act, doubly so for a Catholic priest.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The film version of LaForgue snarks at his fellow Frenchmen all the time, quite viciously at that. Alternatively, he has a truly morbid sense of humour.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: A very thorough deconstruction of all missionary fiction along with romantic takes on natives and exploration of unknown lands.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Forceful baptism of a dying person is strongly frowned upon in the modern Catholic Church - the consent is outright demanded.
  • Demoted to Extra: Neehatin is one of the two Algonquin chiefs within the expedition - and the more prominent to Chomina. He isn't even named within the film and majority of his traits is transplanted to Chomina, too.
  • Didn't Think This Through: In both the book and the adaptation, everyone insists that LaForgue should go to the remote mission right here and now, he himself included. All despite the winter being almost there and the book explicitly mentioning it's too late to go anyway. Nobody seems to notice or care it would be better to wait out until spring in relative safety of Quebec. Predictably, the expedition suffers additional hurdles once the snow starts to fall.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Father Gerome is killed by one of the Hurons soon after father Paul reaches the mission. In the film, he dies in his sleep.
  • Dies Wide Open: In the film, father Duval was murdered by one of the Hurons, most likely with a hatchet to his face. He never had a chance to close his eyes. Meanwhile, when one morning LaForgue finds father Gerome dead in his bed, the old man's eyes are still open, suggesting he wasn't asleep when he passed away.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Annuka crawls up to the guard in the Mohawk village and proceeds to have sex with him... then bashes his head open with a wooden log right when he's too busy climaxing to react.
  • Downer Ending: Considering the historical events, the story couldn't really end well. Even if LaForgue eventually manages to reach the mission and probably convert the local Hurons, the final card flat-out admits he will at best play the role of Unwitting Instigator of Doom for them.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: As usual, quite prophetic. Chomina wishes he had acted upon them much sooner.
  • Due to the Dead: LaForgue buries father Duval, who was deliberately left untreated in the chapel by the Hurons.
  • Dwindling Party: Played With. Only Chomina's closest kin travel with him back to retrieve the priest and all of them, excepting Annuka, die. In the film, LaForgue eventually asks Daniel to stay with her and leave him alone, to fulfill the prophetic dream Chomina had where the priest travels alone.
  • Easy Evangelism: Subverting this trope is one of the main reasons behind the book being written at all. The Jesuits struggle for decades and despite their monumental effort, the end results are almost non-existent, due to hefty dose of Culture Clash and simple indifference. Also, unlike the film adaptation, the book spends considerable time on pointing out how the fruitless work eventually wears down even the most eager and zealous of the missionaries, making them indifferent and thus even less efficient.
  • Easy Logistics: Also subverted. Since the only transport is via Saint Lawrence River on tiny boats, only the bare minimum of essentials can be carried around. Before leaving Quebec, LaForgue is explicitly and carefully prepared with as little gear as it is possible to take, with further list of most important of those to be taken in case of Dwindling Party or even being the sole survivor of his expedition.
  • End of an Age:
    • Chomina acknowledges the dependence on gifts from the French is the beginning of the end of his people, fully knowing the exchange is unequal and there is no real way to stop or appease the white people.
    • The elders in the mission reflect the real concern Hurons had when facing Jesuit missionaries - accepting new faith in the all-or-nothing form presented by "black robes" will be equal to stop being Huron and will destroy their culture and ties within the confederation, leading to pointless fractionalism. This is exactly what happened to Hurons eventually.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The natives call the missionaries black robes due to their clothing. Once he leaves the colonial settlement LaForgue is almost exclusively referred to as "Black Robe". Daniel even calls him that once.
  • Evil Jesuit: A few of the Jesuits are shown as pretty unscrupulous — notably, one lies to the Huron and tells them that baptism will cure their fever — and the film is certainly critical of the Jesuits' missions as a whole. In the same time though LaForgue is a genuinely good guy, who honestly believes he is helping people. His Algonquin guides, however, are pretty wary of him, since he wears the eponymous black robe, sleeps separately from everyone else, and refuses to have sex with the women.
    • Then again, the lying Jesuit firmly believes the Hurons' accepting baptism means they will be saved, even though they didn't understand what they are doing by acceptig it. This puts him in Well-Intentioned Extremist territory.
  • Fake Faith Healer: Father Gerome has no qualms whatsoever to claim that baptism and Christianity is going to heal the sick Hurons. This is particularly prominent in the book, much to LaForgue disgust.
  • Fingore: All over the place, since Mohawks routinely cut fingers off their captives.
    • The carpenters in the opening discuss a missionary who ended up with just two fingers left, one to each hand.
    • The priest preparing LaForgue back in France lacks several fingers, too, along with other mutilations.
    • When captured by Mohawks, LaForgue gets his left index finger cut in half with an oyster shell. The Mohawk chief is quite impressed, since the Jesuit didn't make a sound. And it's all shown in detail.
  • Flashback: Since the story opens already in Quebec settlement, this is how LaForgue's time in France and preparation for the missionary job are shown. The more dire his situation becomes, the more personal the flashbacks get.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: The main reason why the Jesuits have such a hard time converting natives is because this is how they describe Heaven and Paradise to them. The natives find the concept immensely unappealing.
  • Foreseeing My Death: Chomina has a vision of where he's going to die, but he doesn't realise this until he's there and actually dying. He then expresses regret that he never realised the meaning of his recurring dream, as he could have been a fearless warrior if he had known.
  • Foreshadowing: Through the above-mentioned dreams.
  • Heel Realization: Eventually LaForgue realizes that not only is he sure to die a horrible death (something he already partially accepted before even departing into the wilderness), but that he is a flawed person of prideful nature. He proceeds to Turn the Other Cheek from then on.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Attempted, with rather sour results, in the book. Father Paul is suffering from an ear infection and thus can barely hear on the affected ear. The Algonquin assume instead he can barely understand their language. Whenever LaForgue actually hears them, he's perfectly aware of all the things they say about him and their increasing doubts about the whole expedition, but is powerless to do anything about it.
    • And whenever he argues with Daniel and switches to French, it instantly makes the presented Algonquin irritated, because they know something is said behind their backs. Annuka always demands translation or at least explanation.
  • Historical Domain Character: Samuel de Champlain, as an old, tired man. The plot starts during his final year as a governor of the New France.
  • Honor Before Reason: Chomina decides to go back and help the black robe. He openly admits this is stupid, but it's still his honour at stake and it's better to die than break an oath.
  • Human Sacrifice: The Mohawks are planning to burn Annuka at stake as a sacrifice to their god.
  • Going Native: Daniel seems to be going down this road, but after the horrific encounter with the Iroquois Chomina asks him:
    You want to be like us? What do you think now?
    • Of course, at the end, he does go off with Annuka. And that's where the Metis come from.
    • LaForgue has this as his Heel Realization - he eventually accepts it's him who has to adjust to locals, not them to his faith.
  • I Gave My Word: Several of Chomina's companions want to abandon or kill LaForgue and Daniel, but Chomina promised Champlain they'd be protected. Notably, the book version claims to be doing it due to given word, but narration makes it clear it's purely opportunistic attempt to gain good graces from the French.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: After arriving to the New World, Daniel is thoroughly bored with the settlement, because, rather than adventuring and stuff, he's doing the same carpentry job he was doing back in France. So he openly yearns to leave Quebec.
  • Indian Maiden: Kind of. Annuka is The Chief's Daughter who falls in love with a white man. However, she actively defies the Damsel in Distress stereotype and is much more hot-headed and impatient than her father.
  • Insistent Terminology: The natives refer to French as "Normans", and variety of their goods are under "Norman" adjective, too.
  • It Has Been an Honor: Eventually Chomina admits LaForgue might not be completely stupid, while the priest honours his will to die unbaptized.
  • Injun Country: Played more realistically, without the usual cliches.
  • Life Will Kill You: It is noted several times by different characters surviving a winter is an achievement all by itself, even is such "civilised" place like Quebec.
  • A Lighter Shade of Grey: LaForgue, particularly in the novel, is significantly better person - and better priest - than all the other Jesuits. He still has his pitfalls and human weaknesses, but in the same time doesn't employ any ruthless tactics nor lies. Most importantly, while the book is very critical of missionary work as such, father LaForgue is the only person in the story that wants the Huron to understand the religion he preaches, rather than simply score a tally of baptised people.
  • The Missionary: Zig-Zagged. The Jesuits obviously want to convert the natives, but due to the severe Culture Clash the Algonquins assume "black robes" must be demons, as they act weirdly, have even stranger customs and never have sex. LaForgue himself is a doubtful and somewhat self-righteous man, yet in the same time he really wants nothing but the salvation of those people within the frame of his own religion.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: While Daniel is no slouch on his own, he is still a sensitive Bishōnen and has hard time in the wilderness, while Annuka is tough, extremely pragmatic and the dominant in their relationship.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • In the book, when LaForgue finally reaches the remote, disease-ridden mission, people that are against him start to get sick, while Catholic converts are the only ones that get back to health. He himself has mixed feelings about it, not sure if it's divine providence or just dumb luck, and the narration maintains the ambiguity.
    • Chomina's dream can be interpreted both ways. And his final vision of She-Manitou could be either real or just a Dying Dream.
  • Mighty Whitey: Averted hard.
    • The settlers are in general helplessly dependant on the natives, their help and guidance. Especially so once the expedition departs from Quebec and both Father LaForgue and Daniel have a hard time to even keep up with their guides, never impressing them with anything and always remaining outsiders that have to be taken care for.
    • The whole character arc of LaForgue is his ongoing realisation that if he wants to convert the Huron to Christianity, he needs to treat them like equals and not the superstitious children they're often treated as and adjust to them, not the other way around.
  • Mirroring Factions: Moore compares the superstition of the natives with the Catholic beliefs of the missionaries. In the film Daniel suggests this point to LaForgue. Visual juxtaposition to this effect is all over the place, one right in the opening scene.
  • My Greatest Failure: When realising he was always dreaming about his own death, Chomina laments to Annuka he could have been a better, braver and wiser chief if he knew in advance what the dream meant. If he'd known the moment of his death, he'd have approached many situations in the past differently.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: All that LaForgue achieves in the end - if he achieves anything - will lead to the undoing of Hurons and their complete destruction by the Iroquois.
  • Nightmare Sequence: In the film, Chomina has a recurring nightmare, in which he's in some unknown island, weak and dying, with a raven picking his eye. All while in the distance, a black robe walks alone. It is implied in dialogues he's been having this nightmare for years.
  • Noble Savage: Subverted, if not outright defied. All the different aspects of native life, customs and warfare are shown in their unglamorous, mundane and brutal form.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Played for drama. In the book, after splitting their party, Annuka does her very best to protect Daniel the only way she can think of: posing him as a native. She makes him wear buckskin, braids his hair and covers his face with paint - all to conceal his real identity from Hurons. When they eventually reach the mission and LaForgue sees Daniel, he assumes the boy went mad out of lust for Annuka and went fully native.
  • Precognition: The recurring nightmare turns out to be this. Chomina instantly recognises the place from his dream as the one where he will die. He only asks to be left there, since he's already mortally wounded.
  • The Quest: Reaching the Huron mission.
  • Reverse Psychology: After escaping from the Mohawks, LaForgue suggests they still go up-river to the Huron mission, as the Mohawks will rather assume they tried to go downstream to join fellow Algonquins. Chomina agrees, finally admitting the Jesuit is not as stupid as he looks.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What did LaForgue confess?
  • River of Insanity: Both Chomina and LaForgue get more and more anxious as they travel up-river, while members of their expedition get less and less loyal. In the same time, the missionary is slowly, if surely going native, at least as far as his moral compass goes. And this is portrayed as a good thing.
  • Scenery Porn: The many, many shots of somber, yet enthralling landscapes of Canada.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The three Huron elders talk about how their enemies will learn about their weakness if they embrace Christianity and this will lead to the doom of their entire confederacy. Still, they on their own decide to take baptism... and right after that the final card informs us how the Hurons were deliberately wiped out by the Iroquois fifteen years later.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: LaForgue reaches the remote mission and starts to work there. Some of the Hurons accept Christianity... which leads to tribal fractionalism, which weakens the already barely holding confederacy and eventually leads to the brutal conquest and massacres by the Iroquois just fifteen years later. Oh, and the Jesuits missions in the area were disbanded or abandoned soon after that. The final card really doesn't beat the bush about any of it.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog
  • Show Some Leg: Annuka actually has sex with the Mohawk guard to distract him and then clobbering him in the face with a piece of a log.
  • Shown Their Work: It's a faithful adaptation of a very well-researched book, going another extra mile during filming to keep things as close to recreation of the period and culture of different native tribes as feasible.
  • Signature Style: The Culture Clash and being torn between two worlds, fitting neither, is the main theme of Bruce Beresford's other works. It is worth noting Beresford wanted to make an adaptation (and direct it) of the novel the moment it was published.
  • Skewed Priorities:
    • In the book, when to Iroquois party is capturing Daniel, LaForgue, who was so far well-hidden and in no direct danger, emerges from his hideout and walks straight into the thick of fight. That despite he knows he will be captured and killed, probably by torture. Why? Because he wants to give Daniel a chance to have a confession before he will be killed.
    • In the film, he does something very similar, only to forcefully baptise Chomina's dying wife, to complete bewilderment of everyone around him.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To the Noble Savage romanticism of Dances with Wolves.
  • Stock Sound Effects: When LaForgue and Daniel are forced into running the gauntlet by the Iroquois, stock sounds of being hit are used. It fits the scene just as much as you expect.
  • A Taste of the Lash: After witnessing Daniel and Annuka having sex and lusting over it, LaForgue takes off his robe and starts self-flagellating with a branch of a pine tree, praying for forgiveness for his carnal desires.
  • Translation Convention: Since there is subtitled (for the most part) Algonquin and Mohawk spoken extensively by various characters, English spoken instead of French really stands out. Meanwhile, the dialogues in the novel are all obviously written in English, while the narration points out the moments when the language is switched to another.
  • Tsundere: Annuka goes in a loop consisting of indifference, malice and passion toward Daniel.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Particularly prominent in the book, where the Hurons are split among converts and traditionalists - and it's detrimental to their basic survival.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learn what happened to the rest of the party. And in the film, the ultimate fate of Daniel and Annuka also remains unresolved.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: While his brutal honesty rubs people the wrong way most of the time, LaForgue never, ever tells a lie. Even when it would greatly simplify his life. Most importantly, he informs the Hurons baptism won't cure them, but they might still ask Jesus for help on their own.
  • Working Through the Cold: In the novel, LaForgue has a severe ear infection even when still in Quebec, rendering him half-deaf and in constant pain. When he starts to doubt the point of his expedition and his own conviction, it suddenly goes away, which he takes as a sign from God. His mood also greatly improves, obviously.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Mohawk chief slashes the throat of Chomina's son. Right in front of Chomina, who is stripped naked and forced to continue singing as the boy bleeds to death.