Monday, July 20, 2009

Belizaire the Cajun

Belizaire the Cajun (dir. Glen Pitre; 1986) is set in Cajun country of Louisiana, 1859. A message at the beginning of the film tells us that although the Cajuns have been living peacefully in Louisiana for decades, vigilante groups of white landowners have organized to threaten and drive them out of the area. They are given two weeks to leave, after which they’ll be hanged. Belizaire (Armande Assante) is a Cajun healer. He’s a popular man of all trades. He holds no particular grudge with anyone. He’s a respected community leader, on the one hand, and a kind of trickster on the other.

Aside from the efforts of local white residents to expel the Cajuns, a major subplot involves Alida Thibodeaux, a Cajun woman married to Matthew Perry, the son of a local landowner. Although Perry takes part in the vigilante actions, he does so half-heartedly and often tries to discourage other participants from their actions. His sympathies are clearly torn, the result of his marriage to Alida. She herself is torn between loyalty to her husband and children (and to the financial support he provides) and to her Cajun heritage. Belizaire is a former romantic interest of Alida, and he often visits her on the farm, usually with the excuse of providing medical treatment. She is kind to him but not receptive to his advances. She and Matthew are not legally married, although they have three children with a fourth on the way. She claims this doesn’t matter, that they are married in the eyes of God. Matthew’s brother-in-law, Willoughby, dislikes Matthew and is especially disapproving of his sometimes soft approach to the Cajuns. He clearly has his ambitious sights set on old man Perry’s farm and fortune. When Matthew is found dead, the local sheriff casts about for a suspect. Belizaire is arrested for the crime and condemned to hang.

The film pays particular attention to characters caught in the margins between the “white” and Cajun cultures. The sheriff in particular is obliged to uphold the law, and he willingly does so. He protects the Cajuns when he can against vigilantism, but sometimes that means his having to agree that some families can be driven out and others allowed to stay. He makes a deal with the vigilante leader that he will find someone to blame for Matthew Perry’s murder if the leader will agree to end the vigilante action. He even allows the leader to choose who that person will be. He serves both sides of the fence, and it’s tempting sometimes to see him as contemptible and other times to see him as doing the best he can in difficult circumstances. After Matthews’s death, the marginal status of Alida and her children is a major point of concern, one of importance to Belizaire. The failure to formalize Matthew’s marriage to Alida places future support for her and their children in jeopardy—Willoughby vows to see that Alida and her “bastards” receive no part of the Perry fortune.

Even though the film takes place in 1859, it does not mention the American Civil War about to take place. The effect is to emphasize the singular uniqueness of Louisiana Cajun culture, which stands apart from the culture of the rest of the United States. In ways the film seems to have been made on a restricted budget, but it is carefully made nonetheless. The costumes and behavior of the characters don’t always strike me as authentic or historically true to the times and culture of the people portrayed, but then again I don’t know what those times and people were precisely like. The Cajuns are shown as family oriented, fun-loving people who want only to be left alone. They don’t seek out conflict with the local whites, though they don’t miss opportunities that arise to “acquire” stray livestock that come their way. The film engages in a certain sentimentalizing idealization of the Cajuns, and a vilification of the worst elements of white culture.

Armand Assante is the center of this film. Especially in the final scene, when he is about to be hanged, he is quite impressive. He doles out various medicines and herbal remedies to the crowd assembled to watch the hanging—most of them are there in his support. The scene dramatizes the importance of his role in the community, his concern for the people he has served, and, of course, his desire to live.

There is an anecdotal quality to this film. It never overstates nor oversteps its own importance. While it dramatizes the marginalized status of the Cajuns in mid-19th century Louisiana, it is not stridently committed to presenting their point of view and instead seems content merely to make note of their presence and the significance of their culture. Through the character of Belizaire, who so fervently wishes not to be hanged, though he accepts that fate willingly as a means of bringing vigilante action against his people to an end, the film seems to make a similar argument for the survival and recognition of Cajun culture. The film is worth viewing as a kind of contrast to the portrayal of Cajun culture in such a film as Southern Comfort (1983).

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