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Father Laforgue at Home in the Wilderness of the New World

By Daniel Spangler, with comment by Eddie Strumfels

[1] Bruce Beresford's 1991 film Black Robe depicts the experiences of Father Paul Laforgue among the tribes of what is now present-day Canada. Throughout the film Laforgue struggles to bring the Algonquin and Huron to an understanding of Christianity, which is his only goal in life. He can never seem to relate with these people; their culture and beliefs are so foreign to his own that he can make no progress in making them understand the basis for his life. As the film proceeds, Father Laforgue becomes rejected by the people to whom he devoted his life and seems lost in an unimaginable world that he cannot understand.

[2] Laforgue's disorientation spreads from the mental to the physical in a scene where he becomes lost in the woods. After becoming fed up with the antics of the dwarf and shaman Mestigoit, Father Laforgue storms off into the woods. After a short time his pace decreases, and his eyes turn towards the sky, rather than the trees around him. He then experiences a flashback, seeing the splendid, illuminated ceiling of a cathedral in place of the sunlight filtering through the forest canopy. Through this change of images we see that although Laforgue is physically in a foreign culture and landscape, his mind dwells elsewhere. He is never really at one with his surroundings. While his thoughts are on the heavenly, his actions and physical body become lost in his earthly home. In this scene, when Laforgue realizes that he has become lost, he prays, "I'm afraid Lord. I don't welcome death, as a holy person should." He knows that he is not taking control of his mission as planned but has no thoughts or physical actions on how to rectify this. Father Laforgue is found by his Algonquin guides, but, as a character, remains mentally lost throughout the film.

[3] The film shows three flashbacks to Laforgue's childhood life in France. Even among his own people he is unable to connect to those around him and to acknowledge his own emotions and desires. When he is presented with an attractive girl his age, with whom his mother wishes him to become involved, his face shows only embarrassment and subdued emotion. Even among his own people the thoughts of Laforgue reside elsewhere. These flashbacks could be the director's way of showing us that Laforgue's social inhibitions were not simply brought about by the new foreign land. Even at this early stage in his life, Laforgue seems to be "lost in the woods." Father Laforgue's two other flashbacks in the film also exemplify his distance from his homeland society. As an altar boy, he clings to the adventurous idea of converting "savages." This is a way that he can comfortably reside within the security of his own beliefs, because he thinks that he will not be the one under scrutiny, that he will have the power to influence others without making changes to his own life. This turns out to be harder than it seemed. In his last flashback from childhood, Laforgue's mother says goodbye, since she will probably never see him again. By this time she has learned that he shows no interest in worldly things, so she compares him to a saint. Laforgue denies that he is even similar to a saint. He still hasn't realized that he is a person just as the saints and is going on a journey where his strengths will be proven. He can't seem to put himself on the same level with anyone in his society, or realize that he has this potential.

[4] When Laforgue is found by his guides, he smiles and embraces them with gladness. He welcomes the human interaction after being alone. This is one of the few instances in the film that we see any of his emotion. One of the native men says, "How could anyone become lost? The woods are for men. Did you forget to look at the trees, Blackrobe?" The native people know their physical environment and live in ways to satisfy their needs. Their culture reflects the conditions in which they live and anything that is not seen as practical is meaningless to them. While the native people act according to physical need, Laforgue acts only according to his spiritual life and goals. For example, when he witnesses the Algonquin being attacked by the Iroquois, he strides with confidence into the midst of violence in order to bless Chomina's dying wife. He does the only thing he can do, but in this survivalist world it means little. He is clubbed on the back of the head and is taken prisoner. (see comment by Eddie Strumfels)

[5] By the end of the film Father Laforgue has finally reached the Huron mission, finding that a "fever" is killing the people. They want to be baptized because they think it will make them well, but Laforgue has reservations about this because they do not truly understand the ways of God. However, he learns something here that has not been present in the rest of the film. When the Huron chief asks him if he loves them, Laforgue thinks of all the people that he has seen and realizes that they are just as human as he is. He realizes that he cannot make them understand everything, but that he must meet them halfway. What he can do is baptize them. They want to be baptized, and while it might not mean all to them that it does to him, it is making progress. Laforgue sees that this his role, his place on earth, so he does what he can for these people that he has grown to love.


Eddie Strumfels (April 30, 2012)

It didn't strike me until I read this essay, but the line "Did you forget to look at the trees, Blackrobe?" seems to be the perfect way to describe Laforgue in this film up until the final baptism scene. Laforgue spent much of the movie -- flipping an aphorism on its head -- failing to see the trees for the forest. Laforgue's focus on converting natives stopped him from facing the reality of the situation and the people he was with and stymied Laforgue from actually interacting with the world in which he was living. His gaze was always fixed on the forest, on the ideal of Christianizing the New World, but he never looked at the trees themselves. He never bothered to figure out how he could fit in a foreign culture and how he could work within that culture to do the work he wants to do. Before he baptizes the natives in Huron, Laforgue remembers all the men and women he met along the way; he remembered to look at the trees. Only after doing that is he able to see the forest, see how to actually reach out to other people, and do the work of God.