Astataïon (Mission of Fear) Commentary

One of the first full-length feature films from the National Film Board, Astataïon (Mission of Fear) was also the NFB’s first co-production with Radio-Canada. The movie was aired in May 1965 on Radio-Canada and released that same year.

The mid-1960s was an era of profound sociological change in Canada. As the country approached its Centennial year, the federal government began to think seriously about ways of forging a national identity. One of the answers seemed to be the creation of infrastructure to support a feature film industry. This shift in policy was accommodated at the National Film Board by expanding its production focus outward from its pre-occupation with documentary. The early features from the NFB were predictably hybrids, as was the case with Astataïon. It is a full-length, imaginative film with a documentary approach to historical detail. And it is heavily invested with a message.

Before Astataïon (Mission of Fear), the NFB had concentrated on precise representations of the past. But, in this new format, we encounter an invented character, a young priest, who embodies the conflicted feelings and thoughts of 1960s Québec society about the Church. The film is anchored in the events of one evening in the life of the Jesuits at Huronia; they have been condemned to death by the elders for both bringing the unnamed disease that is killing the Huron people, and for being unable to effect a cure. Clearly the gods must be appeased in some way; Jesuits must die. We follow the disciplined and principled actions of the priests on the eve of their deaths. They pray and follow ritual as they normally would, looking to the model of their leader, Fr. Jean de Brébeuf.

But, observing his every move is a young, terrified priest who remembers what led them to this moment. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of the early days when de Brébeuf first arrived in the lands of the peaceful Huron people. The Jesuits co-existed with the Huron, choosing to blend in and take the long view, building trust and friendship and hoping that their example would bring them converts. But they were unsuccessful. The Hurons could see no particular advantage to changing their beliefs or their cultural practices; the Jesuits gained only one convert in five years. Balanced against de Brébeuf’s loving kindness and the young priest’s intractable evangelism are the equally intractable Hurons. In the young priest’s eyes, they are primitive savages who quite literally eat the bodies of their enemies. His thoughts go back to an incident witnessed and aided by de Brébeuf’s inaction. A young captive is being slowly tortured; the priests watch helplessly. They rationalize their complicity in his death by arguing that, if they are to be accepted as part of the tribe, they must not interfere. They are even tricked into partaking of the cannibal feast. Ironically, fate now decrees that it is the Jesuits who will be tortured, killed, and likely eaten. De Brébeuf vows that he will accept his fate as the will of God; but the young man is to be smuggled out of the settlement in order to get word to the nearest Europeans. In the end, he succumbs to the cold and the snow, never reaching his destination.

Astataïon concentrates the audience’s attention on the Jesuit martyrs. Black and white movies work especially well for evoking intense, repressed emotions. At least half the shots are trained on the strained muscles of European faces seen by firelight. There is little conversation amongst the Jesuits. What conversation there is between the French and the Hurons reveals that neither group understands one another at all; but more importantly for the message of the film, is the fact that the Church stands like a monolith between the two groups. De Brébeuf’s religion has helped no one, and hurt many. He is portrayed as a good man whose religion can no more save him than anyone else.

This movie is transitional in terms of both genre and ideology. It sits just at the end of the Duplessis era, when the Church had been omnipresent in all aspects of Quebecois society, including its cultural life. As a result, it was almost impossible in the 1950s and early 1960s to find a novel or a film that did not contain at least one strong character who was a priest. Dansereau was one of several young directors who continued to explore the role of the church in contemporary society after the Duplessis years, rather than to eliminate it altogether from the narrative. His choice to address the role of the Church head on by questioning the powerful and heavily institutionalized myth of the Jesuit martyrs was a brave one.  At that time, there was not a school child in Québec or the rest of Canada who did not know the story of Huronia and its horrifying end. Oddly enough, Dansereau was criticized for his approach to the topic, but not for his attack on the Church. It was claimed rather that he was wrongly perpetuating the myth of the savage Indian. He was forced to reply in a newspaper article that he was working through the mythologies of the White imagination and not from historical fact.

Astataïon (Mission of Fear) was awarded a Genie for best feature documentary in 1966 by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and Best Black and White Cinematography to Georges Dufaux, its director of photography.

 

Evelyn Ellerman