The film's main character, Father LaForgue, is played by Lothaire Bluteau, with other cast members including Aden Young, Sandrine Holt, Tantoo Cardinal, August Schellenberg, Gordon Tootoosis and Raoul Trujillo. It was the first official co-production between a Canadian film team and an Australian one. It was shot entirely in the Canadian province of Quebec.
Set in New France in 1634 (in the period of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars), the film begins in the settlement that will one day become Quebec City. Jesuit missionaries are trying to encourage the local Algonquin Indians to embrace Christianity, with thus far only limited results. Samuel de Champlain, founder of the settlement, sends Father LaForgue, a young Jesuit priest, to find a distant Catholic mission in a Huron village.
LaForgue is accompanied on his journey by a non-Jesuit assistant, Daniel, and a group of Algonquin Indians whom Champlain has charged with guiding him to the Huron village. This group includes Chomina (August Schellenberg) - an older, experienced traveller who has clairvoyant dreams; his wife (Tantoo Cardinal); and Annuka (Sandrine Holt), their daughter. As they journey across the lakes and forests, Daniel and Annuka fall in love, to the discomfort of the celibate LaForgue.
The group meet with a band of Montagnais, First Nations people who have never met Frenchmen before. The Montagnais shaman is suspicious (and implicitly jealous) of LaForgue's influence over the Algonquins. He accuses him of being a devil. He encourages Chomina and the other Algonquins to abandon the two Frenchmen and travel instead to a winter hunting lodge. This they do, paddling away from the Frenchmen. LaForgue accepts his fate, but Daniel is determined to stay with Annuka and follows the Indians as they march across the forest. When one Indian tries to shoot Daniel, Chomina is consumed by guilt at having betrayed Champlain's trust. He and a few other members of the Algonquin tribe return with Daniel to try to find LaForgue.
As they recover LaForgue, a party of Iroquois (specifically Mohawk) attacks them, killing Chomina's wife and taking the rest captive. They are taken to an Iroquois fortress, where they are forced to run the gauntlet, to watch Chomina's young son killed, and told they will be slowly tortured to death the next day. That night Annuka seduces their guard, allowing him to engage in coitus with her. When his orgasm distracts him she strikes him with a caribou hoof, rendering him unconscious and allowing them to escape. Chomina, dying of a wound from his capture, sees a small grove he has dreamed of many times before, and realizes it is the place he is destined to die. LaForgue tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Chomina to embrace Christ before he dies. As Chomina freezes to death in the snow, he sees the She-Manitou appearing to him.
As the weather grows colder, Annuka and Daniel take LaForgue to the outskirts of the Huron settlement, but leave him to enter it alone, because Chomina had dreamed that this must happen. LaForgue finds all but one of the French inhabitants dead, murdered by the Hurons who blamed them for a smallpox epidemic. The leader of the last survivors tells LaForgue that the Hurons are dying, and he should offer to save them by baptizing them. LaForgue confronts the Hurons.
When their leader asks LaForgue if he loves them, LaForgue thinks of the faces of all the Indians he has met on his journey, and answers "Yes". The leader then asks him to baptize them, and the Hurons accept Christianity. The film ends with a golden sunrise. An intertitle explains that fifteen years later, the Huron were massacred by the Iroquois, and the French mission was destroyed.Lothaire Bluteau as LaForgue
Aden Young as Daniel
Sandrine Holt as Annuka
August Schellenberg as Chomina
Tantoo Cardinal as Chomina's Wife
Billy Two Rivers as Ougebmat
Lawrence Bayne as Neehatin
Harrison Liu as Awondoie
Wesley Côté as Oujita
Frank Wilson as Father Jerome
François Tassé as Father ter
Jean Brousseau as Champlain
Yvan Labelle as Mestigoit
Raoul Trujillo as Kiotseaton
James Bobbish as Ondesson
Gordon Tootoosis as old Aneons
Bruce Beresford had wanted to make a film out of Brian Moore's novel ever since it was first published. The rights had been acquired by Canada's Alliance Communications, which had signed another director. That person fell out, as did another director, before the job was given to Beresford. Beresford:
I think that, even if you have no religious faith whatever or, even if you despised the Jesuits, you would still find it an interesting story. It's a wonderful study of obsession and love. And it is a wonderful adventure of the spirit and of the body. What those people did, going to a country where winters were far more severe than anything they had known in Europe, meeting people who were far more fierce than anyone they had ever encountered... Having to deal with these people shows us something of humanity at its greatest. It's the equivalent of today's people getting into space shuttles and going off into space. It takes unbelievable courage to do this.
Funds were raised under a co-production treaty between Canada and Australia. The production needed 30% Australian financing, and the Film Finance Corporation investment had to be spent on Australian elements, such as an Australian crew and two Australian actors.
The film won the Genie Award for Best Canadian Film and Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Schellenberg), Art Direction, Cinematography; Golden Reel Award; and Australian Film Institute – Cinematography.
Black Robe was praised as a "magnificently staged combination of top talents delivering a gripping and tragic story", and has been rated one of the most meticulously researched representations of indigenous life put on film. Notably, the film includes dialogue in the Cree, Mohawk, and Algonquin languages. The French characters speak English in the film. Latin is used for Catholic prayers.
Political activist Ward Churchill, after highly praising the film-making, criticized historical inaccuracies. He said he thought the film vilified the Mohawks as part of a theme that Indian resistance to European culture was evil.
Black Robe grossed $2,036,056 at the box office in Australia. In Canada, it won the Golden Reel Award, indicating the highest box-office performance of any Canadian film that year. In English Canada, it was among only three Canadian films to gross over $500,000 between 1987 and 1990, along with Jesus of Montreal and Dead Ringers.