[- Missionary zeal
Best known thus far for his extraordinary performance as Jesus ofMontreal. gaunt Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau impresses again in Black Robe. Trevor Johnston reports.
Lothaire Bluteau has eveything you could ask for in a Jesus except for the sandals. With the right haircut and the right beard he could look as if he just stepped down from the Cross. but above all. it‘s those intense eyes and pinched features. soulful and commanding in equal measure. that ring with the true chime of the messianic. ‘Presence‘ is not the word. A little slighter than I perhaps expected. but spend halfan hour with him and you soon realise why Denys Arcand wrote the leading role in Jesus ofMontreal especially for him.
Already known for his film and stage work in Quebec. his incarnation as ‘Daniel‘. the moving force behind a controversial contemporary passion play. did much to reinforce the aspect of
spirituality underlying Arcand‘s arresting satire of ‘
90$ moral vacuity. For the film to work. the viewer needed to have this nagging suspicion that the scrawny guy with the nails through his palms might actually be the Christ returned. and. physical resemblance aside. Bluteau brought it off triumphantly.
In the circumstances. you‘d be forgiven for thinking that it was the success of his role as Jesus that led to Bluteau being cast as Black Robe‘s devout young Jesuit missionary Father Laforgue, but that wasn‘t quite the case. ‘I was in London at the time, doing a play. Being At Home With Claude.‘ he recalls. having won much acclaim for his disturbingly committed portrayal of a psychotic male prostitute. ‘and director Bruce Beresford came by after the show one night to arrange a meeting. That was the first time he‘d seen me in anything. but it was enough. I think. to make him interested in me. Laforgue is not an easy role to fill because. although it‘s a substantial part. he isn‘t really a hero. Other actors had been anxious about that. but maybe that was why I came round to wanting to do it.‘
Adapted by Irish author Brian Moore. from his admired novel of the same name. and set in the rugged landscape of France‘s North American colonies circa 1634. Black Robe is actually the nickname the Indians give to Bluteau‘s determined missionary. whose priestly garb and behaviour mark him down as a kind of sorcerer. Tough. uncompromising and authentically grim,
the story of Laforgue‘s odyssey deep into the inhospitable hinterland makes for an engrossing and exciting adventure movie. It also avoids the usual wishy-washy reaction ofdamning the ‘civilised‘ Westerners and romanticising the ‘savage‘ tribespeople. Instead. the film charts (in Moore‘s words) ‘the strange and gripping tragedy" that occurred when Indian beliefs in the power of dreams and Christian preaching of a paradise after death interacted in such a way that each undermined the other. It‘s a salutary lesson that just a few years after the factual events depicted in
‘ the film. the converted Huron tribe had been
almost wiped out by their (unconverted) enemies and the Jesuit missions long abandoned.
Those intense eyes and pinched features, soulful and commanding in equal measure, ring with the true chime ofthe
‘When I read the script at first. I was unsure about it .‘ Bluteau candidly admits. ‘It was so dark. so cruel. As an actor I need to have a reason to
; spend two years on a project and feel that the work
is repaying me. but I was impressed by the integrity ofthe issues that Bruce Beresford wanted to bring to the movie. Laforgue is a man who‘s committed to this work ofsaving souls. but it‘s only when he realises that his preaching is really lost on the Indians that he begins to act out of real charity. He begins to want to comfort them rather than just claim them for the Catholic faith. This is something rich. something complex. and it‘s speaking about why we carry on with our lives. It‘s about living alongside other human beings and what we can learn from those who are different from ourselves.‘
Black Robe: ‘tough. uncompromising and authentically grim.‘
Spending much of his time travelling between Montreal. New York. London and Paris. Bluteau seems to work only when the right project comes along. but his dedication to preparing each role is self-evident. ‘Brian Moore based a lot of the novel on the Relations. the actual reports that the Jesuits wrote and sent back home to France. so I spent a lot oftime reading these 17th century texts. It might seem a little obvious to say so. but there are no movies of that time. no photographs. so you have to piece together what you can. You might have the right clothes. you know. but it‘s much
more difficult to try to understand the thought j process that someone like Laforgue would be S going through. It‘s hard for us today to imagine a
world where faith and science overlapped. where one‘s whole worldview was predicated on Christian teachings.‘
Given the actor’s newfound knowledge about the period. and the filmmakers‘ obvious striving for all-round historical accuracy. it‘s perhaps
-- surprising that Bluteau doesn‘t appear more
disappointed about the welter ofcriticism that has arisen in America over the film‘s unduly savage representation of Indian culture. ‘After Dances With Wolves we expected it.‘ he shrugs. ‘because Black Robe isn't this benign and cosy view of native life. We‘re talking about the 17th century here. so death was so much more prevalent and life was fucking cruel. The various tribes fought and killed each other so that they wouldn‘t appear weak in the face oftheir enemies. Even ifit doesn‘t sit with the position that various activists want to promote. you have to show that in the movie ifyou want to retain your integrity in portraying this moment in time. Sure. it‘s tough. but that‘s how it
was. you know.‘
Black Robe opens at UCI, Edinburgh and Cannon Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow on 6 March.
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The List 28 February — 12 March 199213