Friday, January 18, 2013

Black Death

My hopes weren't high when I saw the DVD cover and read the plot summary of Black Death (2010). Sure, it stars the great Sean Bean, but it looked like the lower-budget version of the Nicolas Cage vehicle Season of the Witch, which was also about knights dealing with reports of witchcraft and wasn't that good. Imagine my surprise and delight to find that Black Death proved to be a serious, thoughtful, and dramatic movie about religious persecution and zealotry, more in kinship with The Wicker Man (the original) and The Seventh Seal.

Directed by Christopher Smith and written by Dario Poloni, Black Death is set during the first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in England, and the population has been decimated. Entire villages have been wiped out, and many people, believing the plague to be God's punishment, have turned to fanaticism. One of the most devout is Ulric (Sean Bean), a warrior appointed by the church to journey to a village where a necromancer is reported to be operating. To guide his band of soldiers, Ulrich recruits Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk from an abbey who hopes to find the woman he loves (Kimberley Nixon). The trip proves to be dangerous and costly, but when the reach the village, they find all is not as it seems.

Although the setting and plot (along with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones actor Sean Bean in the mix) seem to promise a fantasy picture, Black Death is much more grounded in gritty realism. The atmosphere is stark and cold. We witness firsthand the gruesome effects the plague has on its victims (bulbous protrusions on the neck and armpit areas) and the piles of bodies on the outskirts of afflicted villages. The action scenes of the men in combat with swords, spears, and battle axes are not exciting, swashbuckling set-pieces but instead are gruesome, personal, messy, and chaotic; these are people fighting for their lives. Similarly, the obstacles the men encounter don't feel like staged contrivances but are more authentic incidents: a lynch mob trying to kill a suspected witch, flagellants, bandits, and a companion infected with the plague.

The last item illustrates how effective Black Death is. In other virus movies, the infected teammate hides his condition until the most inopportune times for the heroes. Here, the others realize their friend is infected when he coughs up blood and they find the swelling on his neck. Osmund agrees to give him Last Rites, and afterward, Wolfstan (John Lynch) walks right up to him and drives a knife in his heart, no big farewell or overblown scene. Just something that needed to be done.

The movie turns on its head when the survivors of Ulric's group reach the village and find the people there living happily and safely, unspoiled by the pestilence in the land around them, but before too long, it becomes a battle of wills between two sets of believers: the Christian men who have arrived with weapons and the Pagans who have rejected Christianity. In an ironic twist, the witch hunters find themselves the persecuted, condemned to the same violent rituals they long subjected to others. All this time, we the audience are waiting for a demonstration of the necromancer's power and the supernatural, and we seem to get it at first, but in end, neither Christianity nor Paganism offer much salvation or mercy. Both belief systems  resort to fear, intimidation, and cruelty when it suits their followers while the plaque is the great equalizer.

The characterization was much stronger than I had anticipated. Osmund is torn between his duty to his faith and his love while trying to reconcile the death around him and insisting the plague is not punishment by God; the movie is essentially his awakening to the horrors and darkness of the world, and the final scenes go a long way to showing that. Ulric could have easily been a fire-breathing fanatic, but Bean calmly underplays him; he believes firmly what he does, treating it more as a burden than a crusade, although Osmund's abbot (David Warner) is right when he says Ulric is dangerous. I also liked the depiction of the men in Ulric's party as more than red shirts or stereotypes. I particularly liked the silent Ivo (Tygo Gernandt), whom we're told had his tongue cut out when captured by the French and he refused to talk, and the gruff, bloodthirsty Mold (Johnny Harris) who's actually an OK guy once you get past the violence.

Black Death demonstrates how a movie doesn't always need ghosts, witches, or monsters to be chilling. Man's beliefs and his actions can truly be frightening by themselves, especially in the face of certain, merciless death.

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