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‘Belizaire the Cajun’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 21, 1986


Glen Pitre
Armand Assante;
Gail Youngs;
Michael Schoeffling;
Stephen McHattie;
Will Patton
Parental guidance suggested

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"Belizaire the Cajun" is a curiously unresolved little movie, but it's also an ambitious one -- in its sense of history, and of political and moral complexity, it aims at things that bigger-budget movies generally ignore. And it's a breakthrough for Armand Assante, an actor who has been limited to romantic second bananas and the ambiguous glamor of TV mini-series.

As the movie relates, the Cajuns were among the first settlers on the continent (preceding the Pilgrims), founding the province of Acadia in Nova Scotia; they were thrown out by the British in the mid-1700s after the French and Indian War. In the diaspora, "Acadian" was corrupted to "Cajun," and many of them settled in the French colony of Louisiana.

Assante plays Belizaire Breaux, a faith-healing Cajun who becomes embroiled, in 1859, in the struggle between Cajuns and wealthy vigilante groups who want to run them out of the state. Belizaire's lifelong love, a Cajun woman named Alida (Gail Youngs), has married Matthew Perry (Will Patton). Although one of the vigilantes, he's enamored of Cajun ways, but he has to steer carefully lest he lose the plantation to his brutal and unscrupulous brother-in-law Willoughby (Stephen McHattie).

Writer-director Glen Pitre tries to condense his sprawling narrative into a more accessible, and more familiar, love triangle, but while his instincts are correct, he is thrown into a bind -- the most interesting character is Matthew, as he's the one in a moral quandary. Pitre acknowledges the problem, but he doesn't resolve it gracefully -- midway through, the focus shifts to Belizaire's attempts to save the life of Leger (Michael Schoeffling), a pathetic drunkard and cattle rustler.

At that point, "Belizaire the Cajun" takes one left turn after another, culminating in a bizarre, overlong gallows scene. Perhaps because of its low budget and location shooting, "Belizaire the Cajun" is shot mostly with a bouncy hand-held camera that could make you airsick, and there are a number of horse chases in which the photography is considerably less lively than the authentic Cajun music (by Michael Doucet).

Still, Pitre's instincts are right. In a style that seems otherwise to be the domain of screen writer Robert Bolt, he's trying to show you the effects of a complex power struggle on the conscience of a single man. That lends the movie a vivid sense of period and place -- many of the plot twists hinge on peculiarities of Louisiana law. And it richly colors one of Pitre's most interesting characters, a sheriff (played by Loulan Pitre, the director's father) who thinks of justice in simple arithmetic terms -- if a crime is committed, someone must hang, and it doesn't much matter who.

It also gives Assante the challenge of Belizaire, a religious man, but also a con artist and a fixer -- a paradox Pitre establishes in the movie's first sequence, in which the healer negotiates his penance with a Catholic priest (an amusingly befuddled Allan Durand). Swarthy and glowering beneath an impressive bouquet of black hair, Assante "solves" the paradox by making Belizaire a creature of pure instinct -- whether he's manipulating or healing, you never see the wheels turning. He's following a star.

Assante anchors a fine supporting cast, particularly Patton, as the gentle son wounded by a bullying father, and McHattie, as the coolly evil Willoughby. Youngs has some trouble with the difficult Cajun accent, but her odd, gray-eyed beauty carries her through. Among the supporting players are several Cajun nonactors, whom Pitre uses to give the movie a documentary texture.

The movie's ethnic celebration, eccentric shifts in tone, dark view of politics and antihero at its center, make it an example of a genre that grew up in the '70s -- the hip western. Like those movies, "Belizaire the Cajun" has its problems, but if it fails as often as it succeeds, that's a kind of success in itself. This is an impressive debut film.

"Belizaire the Cajun" is rated PG and contains some violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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