Landmark Louisiana movie ‘Belizaire the Cajun’ is back on the big screen
Twenty-five years ago, before Louisiana had motion picture tax incentives or even any movie industry to speak of, what started out as a totally home grown production grew into an indie film phenomenon and darling of critics.
Called “a masterpiece” according to the “San Francisco Chronicle,” “triumphant” per the “New York Times,” while Roger Ebert called it “a wonderful movie” as his national TV show gave it “two thumbs up.”
Now, the movie that introduced much of the world to Cajuns returns to selected movie theaters in the region where it was made.
While on the tour, in Lafayette, Louisiana, Glen Pitre ran into an old friend, Richard Guidry, at a party. When the evening turned to storytelling, Guidry told a tale handed down in his family.
A ‘traiteur’, or treater, or in a Cajun slang, an herbal healer, had once been arrested for the murder of a vigilante. When later released, he moved in with the dead man’s widow.
Pitre moved the story back, to before the Civil War, when the vigilante committees of southwestern Louisiana were first formed. Pitre wrote the first few drafts of the screenplay “on the road.
I was touring my films in Canada, then France. I wrote it on trains, planes, and friends’ kitchen tables.”
With the third draft of the script complete, plans were made for a slightly more ambitious Cajun movie. On yet another “show and tell” traveling with the films, to Houston this time, the organizer of the screening asked to read Pitre’s script. He liked it so much, he sent it in as his nominee to the Sundance Institute.
A romantic adventure, “Belizaire the Cajun” is set in pre-Civil War Acadiana where a wily herb doctor must save a life, defeat murderous vigilantes, win a woman’s heart, and escape the gallows in what “Variety” called “one of the looniest hanging scenes ever committed to film.” Belizaire’s writer-director, Cut Off native Pitre, penned the screenplay while working as a cook on an offshore supply boat.
An herbal doctor’s love for another man’s wife and his struggle to save his cousin are part of an explosive chain of events that breaks the silence of the Louisiana frontier in this touching, often whimsical romantic adventure.
On a Louisiana bayou in the late 1850s, the first ride of a plantation owners’ Vigilante Committee brings a night of terror to many of the local people. Accused of being cattle thieves, hog nappers, and the like, they are ordered into exile, upon penalty of death.
Though considered a troublemaker and worthy of exile by many on the committee, the village healer, Belizaire Breaux (Armande Assante) has been spared. His cousin, Hypolite Leger (Michael Schoeffling), has not. The wily Belizaire dedicates himself to saving Leger.
Belizaire first seeks help from Alida (Gail Youngs), his former sweetheart but now the wife of the vigilante Matthew Perry (Will Patton). Torn between the two men and their two different worlds, Alida must deal with tragedy when Matthew is found murdered.
The vigilantes believe Leger the killer, and chase him through the woods and across the prairie.
The manhunt climaxes in the green, waist-deep waters of a Louisiana swamp.
Belizaire’s efforts to save his cousin are thwarted when he finds himself the scapegoat in a scheme to discredit the vigilantes. The Sheriff (LoulanPitre), playing both sides as he sees fit, enlists the dead man’s evil brother-in-law, James Willoughby (Stephen McHattie), to help hang Belizaire for Matthew Perry’s murder.
Escaping jail only to be thrown back in again, Belizaire is eventually marched to the gallows. A triple hanging turns into a three-ring circus as the healer makes a desperate bid to cure the gravest ills of all.
In a true-life Cinderella story, in 1983, the script was selected from among hundreds for production assistance by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. Robert Redford founded the institute in 1981 to give a helping hand to promising young writers and directors working outside of the Hollywood studio system.
For 1983, five feature projects were chosen from over 450 nominees, two from New York, two from California, and one from Cut Off.
Two years later, after coaxing two dozen Louisiana rice growers, sugarcane farmers and oil tycoons to invest, Pitre and producer Allan Durand of St. Martinville were on the set with then-screen-heart-throbs Armand Assante and Michael Schoeffling (fresh off of “Private Benjamin” and “Sixteen Candles,” respectively). Even the year-before’s Best Actor Oscar winner, Robert Duvall, flew down to play a cameo.
Now, a new generation of Louisianians can enjoy Belizaire.
“It’ll be fun for the people whose parents and grandparents have been talking about it for 25 years to finally see it,” Pitre says. “I hope they’ll be as proud of its Louisiana-made, Cajun story as I am.”
Belizaire the Cajun opens March 25 in Lafayette at the Ambassador 14 and on April 1 in New Orleans at Chalmette Movies. For more information visit www.CoteBlanche.com