With thanks to Proph, I watched this 2010 movie the other night. If you can stomach the violence, you might try this one if you’re looking for some lazy weekend entertainment that nonetheless touches on redeeming reactionary principles.
(I say again: SPOILER ALERT! Please do NOT read this review if you think you might watch the movie!)
The movie is variously billed as “horror”, “adventure”, “drama”; I would call it “pseudo-historical drama” with some adventure and horror mixed in. It’s set in 14th-century Europe (it doesn’t get more geographically specific than that) at the time of the Black Death. A group of Christian mercenaries, along with a monk, is enlisted to investigate witchcraft in a remote village. So what makes the film worthwhile? To begin with, as Proph says, the cinematography alone is worth it. As one reviewer puts it:
A savvy, stylish horror-actioner that’s more than the sum of its genre parts, Black Death manages to deliver enough suspense and bloodletting to appease gore fans… Use of grainy stock and a preference for special effects rather than visual or CGI effects gives it a pleasingly retro feel, as does its willingness to explore uncomfortable moral ambiguities. Tech credits create a strong, fetid atmosphere on what looks like a low budget. German locations in Saxony look appropriately beautiful, sinister and ancient all at the same time
Completely agreed. I didn’t realize until I read this review that the movie used no CGI (which I loathe in almost all its forms – why do filmmakers not realize that even today, in 2012, CGI still looks fake?). The reliance on old-fashioned special effects – and there are few enough of those – rather than CGI feels very refreshing and really enhances the medieval atmosphere. The characters and scenery appear gritty and grim; everything looks realistic without going overboard in portraying everyone as hopelessly dirty and lacking in any standard of hygiene (a misconception that Lawrence Auster complained about here).
If you’re an adventurer like me who thrills at the idea of exploring a vast, primeval forest or a mysterious old village, you’ll be captivated by the visuals.
(By the way, Auster’s argument reminds me of something that crossed my mind while watching this film: why is that humans are so versatile? I don’t think we really appreciate how versatile we are. Seven hundred years ago folks were perfectly content living in tiny hamlets, while today – 30? or so generations later – people thrive in vast megacities of millions without losing their sanity. Is this likely if we evolved to dwell in a certain ecological niche?
In fact, I think there’s scientific evidence that we *do* suffer psychologically when deprived of nature. Even so, I think this line of thinking could be developed into an argument that humans have been created with innate potential to be able to fill a wide variety of “niches”. This is the best way to explain how you can take someone, stick him in a remote 14th-century village or a 21st-century metropolis, and he’ll adapt equally well.)
If you were to predict the message of Black Death based only on the trailer, you would come away convinced that it is an angry and vicious atheist attack of Christianity for the manner in which faith has been historically used as a bloody and vicious bludgeon on those it opposes. As with Osmund, you would be only half right. Turns out screenwriter Dario Poloni and director Christopher Smith (who comes from a horror background and suffuses the film with buckets of blood and hacked limbs) have little love for fundamentalism of any stripe.
I agree with the first half of this assessment, but not the second half, and this is where it gets interesting for a reactionary. I did indeed expect this movie to be a typical, tiresome Hollywood screed; I thought the Christian characters were going to be sundry hypocrites, dullards, and cruel barbarians. But they aren’t. I’m not really an avid movie-watcher, but I must say that I have never seen Christians portrayed so sympathetically on-screen. For the most part, the mercenaries are shown to be men with genuine faith in God. They are not cynics who use the Church for selfish ends, nor are they self-righteous (except by the leftist interpretation that subscribing to any moral code is “self-righteous”). They are not hypocrites, on which more later. Better than any film I have ever seen, except for explicitly “Christian” films, this one takes the realistic and sympathetic perspective of genuinely exploring the characters’ faith struggles – the struggles we all have as believers. Instead of simply mocking faith as “stupid”, instead of smuggling in the none-too-subtle suggestion that all Christians are secret sinners who “don’t really believe in our own religion”, we see a moving depiction of a genuine believer struggling with his sin, even bringing his questions before God. It’s very life-like.
Moreover, I don’t think I have *ever* seen a movie where the Christians’ mission is portrayed as morally entirely in the right, as it is here. There is no secret agenda; the stated mission is not a cynical cover story for some kind of “power grab” by the Church or anyone else; rather, the mercenaries’ purpose is to protect society by bringing some evildoers to justice. It’s possible (likely!) that my own Christian assumptions are colouring my interpretation of the characters’ mission, but to me their mission is one hundred percent within the pale. And in this vein, the pagans, in turn, are not the innocent “noble savages” that we might expect from Hollywood. Without going into detail (in case you’ve read this far but still decide to watch the film), the pagans are every bit as nasty – dare I say, demon-possessed – as we Christians actually believe they can be.
By the time the movie was over, I had naively begun to wonder whether the producers were some kind of Christians, or Christian sympathizers. Proph says not:
The amazing thing about the movie is that providing a balanced depiction of medieval Christendom was far from the producers’ (Euroleftists all) intentions. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of the normal Hollywood fare, in which they try to create a realistic and likable character who instead falls flat; here, they were trying to make a caricatural one-dimension zealot in Ulrich and instead, entirely by accident, produced this fascinating Byronic hero, simultaneously attractively noble and revoltingly cruel.
And here I must agree with that last sentence: the Christians in this movie are not unbelievably heroic. But they are realistic, and that’s what makes the film so good. I don’t want a hagiography, where my heroes can do no wrong, because life isn’t like that. I do want characters that are three-dimensional, and that’s exactly what we get. I kept comparing them to the characters in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), characters whose “Christianity” is used as something to make the plot go, but never really taken seriously. By contrast, in Black Death we see:
-a monk, vowed to celibacy, who sincerely wants to follow God, but is torn between devotion to Him and a sin of the flesh. Just like real life.
-a knight motivated by genuine belief in God and fear of Him, who sometimes makes poor decisions – in particular, subscribing to “good ends justify cruel means”.
-a dumb, “tough guy” mercenary who nonetheless fears God enough to turn down a romp in the sack with a gorgeous lass (I thought for sure this guy was going to turn out to be a stock cardboard Hollywood “street tough” with no real moral fibre. Pleasantly surprising!).
The story’s climax comes when the mercenaries, along with their monk friend, are captured and threatened with death unless they renounce their faith. And I think this is where the film truly blew all my expectations out of the water. Have you ever seen men on-screen who really will not renounce their faith, even in the face of death and torture? I haven’t, though again I admit I am not an avid movie buff.
The climactic scene, Christians bound in chains:
Pagan village leader: “Who will renounce?”
Christians: … silence, glares of defiance …
It’s humbling to watch.
Then after a few minutes:
Pagan village leader: “Again, who will renounce?”
One of the Christians (the only one who has been portrayed throughout as being cynical and weak in his faith): “I will. I will renounce!”
Christian knight (wearing a look of sincerity mixed with fear): “No! You’ll burn in hell!”
As Proph suggested, I think it’s likely that the producers intended to portray the knight as a sneer-worthy “fundamentalist” so rigid in his cruel Christian beliefs that he actually thinks his friend will, you know, burn in hell for betraying Christ. (Can you believe it? Ha ha, this fundie actually thinks his friend is going to burn in hell!) But if so, they dropped the ball. The way it comes off in the film is very deeply moving: it’s clear that this noble man actually cares for his friend’s soul. No unfeeling legalism here, only sincere belief and concern for another’s welfare.
Again, I find it hard to believe that the producers were able to portray a Christian faith this real. Contrast it with the cynical priest in Kingdom of Heaven who, when threatened with imminent Muslim victory, advises his fellows to “convert now and repent later”. I wonder if the filmmakers’ European background wasn’t an influence here; I wonder if their sense of European history, and the reality of violent religious conflict, gives them a greater appreciation for the intensity that Christian faith can have. I don’t think you’d see this sort of stoic steadfastness in a film inspired by wishy-washy American Protestantism.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the post-climactic scene with the pagan atheist who obstinately denies God to the last. The way this was portrayed is maddening; you want to tear your hair out, asking, Why, oh why, are you so obnoxiously stubborn? The scene honestly feels like nothing so much as debating an internet atheist who *will not* see anyone else’s point of view.
All in all, the movie mixes historical drama with some very relevant philosophical questions. Here I quote one final review:
But the questions it raises are not interesting enough for me to feel it justifies watching such Dark Ages torturous material.
Then you are a fool. These are some of the most important questions of life.