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The Moral Implications of Daniel

By Timothy Guida, with comment by Kelsey Cannon

[1] In the 1991 film Black Robe we are presented with a character who shares in the moral struggles that the film provokes in viewers. He is a young Frenchman named Daniel, and he is a means by which the filmmakers explore the morality of the Jesuit conversion attempts. Daniel stands on the border of Native American and Western cultures and, like the modern viewer, seeks to determine right and wrong in the tragic setting of North American colonization. The pivotal moment in this struggle comes in a sequence of conflict and confession, where he is put in a position to choose between his Indian lover, Annuka, and a Jesuit priest, Fr. Laforgue.

[2] Daniel is drawn into this journey because of a fascination with Native Americans. This fascination is demonstrated by his gaze during the first sequences of the film. He stares at the Native American peoples with interest. In particular, Annuka appeals to him. The long staring shots from his point of view connect him to the film's viewers, who look on just as he does. Like Daniel we also share in a modern fascination with Native American life. Daniel then volunteers to accompany Fr. Laforgue on his journey. He states his intent as "the greater glory of God" and expresses a desire to study to be a Jesuit when the journey finishes. He appears to be honest in this desire, and this shows him to be a loyal Catholic and Frenchman. It also establishes his initially firm connection to "our" world.

[3] With the start of the journey we see a duality develop in the character of Daniel. He still holds on to his Western Catholic ideals, but we see that he has also started to sympathize with the Native Americans. His former cultural ties then begin to sever, initiated by his relationship with Annuka. Just as he has fallen in love with her, he has fallen in love with her way of life, becoming more and more "native." This can be seen in his gradual change in attire, even in the way he begins to wear his hair. From the start of his relationship with Annuka, he abandons some of the Christian morality he started with, engaging in pre-marital sex. This "sin" is just the first expression of the enormous inner questioning he is undergoing. His mannerisms seem consistently troubled, and when Fr. Laforgue confronts him we see the extent of the change he has undergone.

[4] The confrontation scene starts with the interracial couple of Daniel and Annuka walking along a shoreline. The surroundings are dominated by white color, and the atmosphere is peaceful. Suddenly Fr. Laforgue, wearing his eternal black, interrupts the scene. Daniel is now placed in the middle of two worlds, his old life with Laforgue, and his developing life with Annuka. Laforgue asks Daniel to say an Act of Contrition with him, a Christian prayer for forgiveness. Fr. Laforgue admits his own sin and looks for Daniel to repent with him. It is now that we see Daniel's transformation; he has gone from a French Catholic to a man on the border of Indian life. From this vantage point he looks back at the ideas of his past and cannot help but see them with skepticism. Once taken from Eurocentric civilization he realizes that "Life is not that simple."

[5] Daniel starts by questioning the dogma of Catholicism. Though the natives do not accept the dogma of the Church, he recognizes that they are "true Christians" who "live for each other" and "forgive things that we never would." This is a very modern way of thinking and affirms Daniel's role as a character holding modern ideals. This questioning also connects to the film Cabeza de Vaca and the concept of "the faith" that it presents. Laforgue refuses to accept that these people are Christian at heart, however, and Daniel becomes more challenging in his statements. He steps out of the Christian realm completely and presents concepts that are wholly Native American. He describes a Native American afterlife where spirits of men hunt the spirits of animals. Laforgue, here a representative of Western culture, laughs at these beliefs and calls them childish. We, like Daniel, see the stubborn ignorance of this laughter. Daniel then asks why these beliefs are any less believable than our own. Laforgue can only give a look of desperation. This desperation seems to be the result of his own moral questioning. The audience, Western society, feels the effect of this question as well, and we, too, have no answer. The end of the scene shows Daniel once again embracing Annuka and walking off with her. Laforgue is left alone, and he drops to his knee and prays. When Daniel leaves Laforgue's side for an Indian life, it forces him to question the conversion path he is on. We as viewers also question the justice of this path but know the direction that history will take. (see comment by Kelsey Cannon)

[6] Washington Irving asked the "gigantic question": "What right had the first discoverers of America to land, and take possession of a country, without asking the consent of its inhabitants, or yielding them an adequate compensation for their territory?" In this vein, Black Robe, especially through Daniel, seems to ask what right they had to try to give this people a religion they knew nothing about, especially when they already had one of their own that was highly comparable to our own. Even if seen with good intentions, the consequences of this conversion effort are disastrous. Besides the death spread through plague, those who were made to change their ways caused a death of their culture. In one scene an Indian, seeing the sign of the cross, says "That is how they steal our spirit." A tragic statement, it is all too true. Native American life is far different from ours, but in many ways just as Christian. The sign of the cross, representing conversion, put an end to this life. Daniel is the other option, the peaceful assimilation of two cultures, but he fades into obscurity when he walks away from Fr. Laforgue. His departure causes Laforgue to question his path, but we see his decision when he falls to his knee and begins to pray. Laforgue assumes a traditional Catholic pose, even on the banks of a wilderness river. He will continue to hold on to his tradition; he drops to his knees, and the path of history marches on.


Kelsey Cannon (April 30, 2012)

Daniel's Christian take on the natives' way of life is interesting. Given his background as a French Catholic, he is inclined to think that the natives represent real "Christian" tendencies, as cited by Guida in the lines above. However, such tendencies are not displayed by the Christians in the movie, thereby relaying a confusing message. I believe the intent was for the viewers to look at the Jesuits with a critical eye, which it accomplishes initially, but with time and consideration the message seems to take a different turn. Is Daniel questioning all of Christianity at that moment? Is he, instead of conveying that the natives are more moralistic than the Jesuits, limited by his wording? By saying that the natives are more Christian than the friar, it is possible the director wants to convey reverse conversion of sorts in which Daniel converts from Christianity to the native belief system. Especially in light of the end of the film, Daniel's actions highlight Catholicism as a weakness impeding spirituality rather than facilitating it.