In 17th-century Quebec, cultures converged as French priests arrived to spread Christianity to the Native tribes around the upper Great Lakes. The movie Black Robe tells the story of Father Laforgue, a Jesuit (wearing a black robe) whose assignment is to travel into the land of the Huron Indians, accompanied by a small group of Algonquins. In the opening scenes, it is established quickly that there is not much common ground or understanding between the Europeans and Americans. Algonquins gather in a room, in silence, staring at a clock.
When it strikes four, they assume the clock is communicating with the French, and call it “Captain Clock.” None of the French present correct them, and it is soon evident that many of the Europeans do not consider the Indians capable of learning or understanding; the Algonquins, and later the Hurons, share the same ideas about the French. When one asks another if the French are intelligent, his response is one word—“no.” An American sorcerer even labels the priest a demon, when he is offering prayers for the dead. The movie shows a transition from these chauvinistic opinions, however, for familiarity with one another may breed contempt, but ultimately leads to some degree of understanding.
Before Father Laforgue embarks on his mission, he visits an older priest who lived with the Americans and was physically mutilated. When the young cleric asks why the Americans injured him, the priest replies simply that they are “uncivilized, just as the English or Germans were before we came to them. I will be returning next month.” Laforgue, impressed that the man plans to rejoin his deformers, seems incredulous until the priest adds: “The savages live in outer darkness. We must convert them. What more glorious task than that?” As Laforgue sets out, accompanied by an aspiring seminarian named Daniel and under the protection of the small Algonquin band led by Chomina, he learns that what Europeans attribute as “darkness” is difference. One of the main motivations for converting the non-Christians is so that they may die and go to heaven. Daniel relates a discussion between himself and his Algonquin lover and Chomina’s elder daughter, Annuka, “They have an afterworld of their own.” Laforgue responds “They have no concept of one.” Daniel counters that Annuka told him that “they believe that in the forest at night the dead can see.
The souls of men hunt the souls of animals.” The Father dismisses this by saying “Is that what she told you? It is childish, Daniel.” Daniel then responds, “Is it harder to believe in than Paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?” The Americans have an afterworld based on what they see on earth. They do not relate to European concepts of faith that are not corroborated by experience. Some scoff at the idea of the “Paradise” for which the priests are willing to die to bring to them. As Chomina dies, he admonishes Laforgue: “You have not seen this paradise. No man should welcome death. This world is a cruel place, but it is the sunlight.”
Indeed, the concept of reality, especially when compared to dreams, is mentioned by both the Europeans and Americans repeatedly. When Chomina reveals a dream that he believes foretells the future, his followers respond that dreams are real, more so than death and battle. Annuka tells Laforgue to journey to the Huron mission alone based on her father’s dream, because the “dream is real. It must be obeyed.” The priest acquiesces, reasoning, “What can we say to people who think that dreams are the real world; this one is an illusion. Perhaps they’re right.” Laforgue is not abandoning his faith, but opening his eyes to the universal human spirit that seeks to explain the inexplicable. He understands that the hope he offers may seem like an illusion. Nonetheless, upon reaching his destination and finding missionary Father Jerome on his deathbed and many Hurons dying of fever, Laforgue maintains true to the idea that unknowing, symbolic acts are not the real intent of conversion. Father Jerome exhorts him to baptize any Huron who asks immediately, although they do not believe in the European God but rather the possible healing effects of the holy water. Laforgue asks, “I mean, mustn’t they understand our faith before accepting it?” In Father Jerome’s eyes, however, belief is not the point, salvation is. He mutters to Laforgue,“ Understand? But they are in danger of death, and we are offering them a place in Paradise.” This is the priest’s commitment, whether the Americans desire the European notion of “Paradise” or not.
Perhaps the most unifying event in the movie for the Algonquins and the French is their fear of a common enemy. The Hurons at first are depicted with savagery—speaking of dismembering and eating their rivals, raping and slaughtering, slitting the throat of Chomina’s younger daughter in front of him, and cutting off Laforgue’s finger then making him sing. Laforgue asks Chomina if the Hurons would show mercy if he and Chomina cried out to them. Chomina, expecting the same torture that Laforgue will get, warns him, “No, they will not stop. But if you cry out when you die, they will have your spirit.” A bond of respect and friendship develops between the two men as they share the same torturous fate at the hands of their mutual enemy. Surprisingly, even the Hurons, exhausted from battling fever, listen to Laforgue’s Christian teachings and adopt them.
The movie ends with a brief written summary of the next fifteen years. During that time, the Europeans and the Hurons reach what could be described as a period of rapprochement. Whether Laforgue’s attempts at promoting understanding have created this respite of cultural and religious acceptance is uncertain, because the ending message relates that the Hurons at the mission eventually all perish at the hands of one of their enemies, and Laforgue returns to Quebec. Whether the mission was successful is unclear, but the fact remains that people can learn to appreciate each other despite their differences.