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Black Death

A movie directed by Christopher Smith

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There is a Pestilence Upon This Film

  • Mar 17, 2011
Star Rating:

Black Death is not merely vile, sadistic, cruel, and ugly, it’s also deeply immoral. In the fourteenth century, as Bubonic Plague ravishes Europe, an isolated English village has managed to keep out the pestilence, first by renouncing God, second by torturing and murdering Christians who kill in God’s name. The fatal flaw of this premise is that it gives credence to reprehensible acts of violence on both sides of the religious spectrum. The thinking is, if I’m a Christian who believes it’s God’s will to commit murder, and if you’re an atheist who’s fed up with the years of intolerance and persecution, then it’s acceptable for you to murder me. You have in the process demonstrated that you’re just as intolerant as I was. How depressing that we have exemplified equality through our mutual lack of compassion.
Religion has historically been used to justify some of the worst crimes against humanity, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust to the 9/11 attacks. We don’t hear much, though, about the totalitarian regime installed in Albania after World War II, which enforced an atheist state. Under the Agrarian Reform Law of 1945, the properties of religious institutions were seized; by 1967, under the rule of Enver Hoxha, all religious freedoms were officially banned. During the next twenty-four years, those who were caught practicing religion, or even those in possession of a religious object, were subject to humiliation, vilification, incarceration, and in some cases, execution. The latter includes Shtjefen Kurti, a Catholic priest whose crime was baptizing a child in secret.

It’s unconscionable to persecute someone in the name of God. On the same token, there’s no theory under which it’s acceptable to persecute in the name of “a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.” In both cases, basic human rights are violated. Dogma goes both ways. If you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim, it is not your right to preach to me about what I should believe. If you’re an atheist, it is not your right to preach to me about what I shouldn’t believe. Faith – or lack thereof – is an individual process and should be observed privately. There are enough problems in the world without fanatics of all persuasions trampling on someone else’s beliefs.
And with this, I return to Black Death, which preaches at us in extremes from both ends. The result is so much worse than a hopelessly confused film; there is not a single likeable or engaging character to be found. On the religious end, we have a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), whose faith prevents him from being with the girl he loves, Averill (Kimberley Nixon). He coaxes her into leaving, since Plague is decimating the village. Alas, he cannot go with her, for it would be considered a sin to serve God away from his monastery. But then a group of Christian mercenaries, led by the pious knight Ulric (Sean Bean), enters the monestary and appeals to the monks for a guide to a faraway village; it has been untouched by Plague, and is rumored to harbor a necromancer, meaning someone with the ability to bring the dead back to life. For Osmund, this is a golden opportunity – the village the knights seek is not far from where Averill said she would wait for him. He volunteers to lead them.

They eventually wind up in a marshland community, and although it is indeed free of pestilence, the villagers appear kind, peaceful, and prosperous. The leader, Langiva (Carice van Houten), even invites them to a communal supper. Ulric is not convinced. Why is the leader a woman? Why do the women outnumber the men? And why do they seem genuinely confused when they bow their heads in prayer? I have, of course, already alluded to the reality of the situation, but I haven’t yet gotten into the film’s more perverse aspects, most notably the relentless violence. The goriest teen slasher film would be hard pressed to top Black Death in sheer visual depravity; in the course of this film, we will witness throats being slit, decapitations, burnings at the stake, stabbings, and even someone getting their limbs torn off by horses.
This plays into the overall ugliness with which the film was photographed. The color scheme is muddy and muted, as if dirt was smeared on the camera lens. Landscapes are almost always overgrown, shrouded in fog, and littered with rotting corpses. This may, perhaps, be a way in which the film is “effective” – they were, after all, called the Dark Ages for a reason. But a visual style cannot make up for the screenplay’s complete lack of decency. There’s no reason to tell this kind of story in this particular way. Absolutely nothing will be gained by seeing it, apart from a profound sense of nihilism. The more I think about Black Death, the sadder I get; it depicts humanity at its worst, and I have a feeling it will only appeal to the worst of humanity.


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March 20, 2011
Not sure if I will like this one, but I'm intrigued by the concept and yours and William's different reviews. Excellent write-up, Chris!
March 20, 2011
Thanks. You probably shouldn't listen to me on this one, though, since I seem to be the only one that hates it.
March 20, 2011
Nothing wrong with being the only one to hate something. There's validity to the points you made too. I was on the opposite spectrum for "The Social Network." It's lonely to be the outliers, lol!
March 17, 2011
Nice review as always, but for some reason, I may still see this either ondemand or in theaters. There is just something about its premise that interests me and I am not the type who dislikes really vile horror. Glad I happened to stop by and see that you have some new reviews! Thanks!
March 17, 2011
The vile horror was just a small part of why I awarded the film zero stars. The premise deeply offended me; I felt it was justifying hatred and violence on both ends of the religious spectrum, and not in a way that was meaningful or intelligent. It was just exploitation. I pretty much stand alone on this one, though. It currently holds an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
March 19, 2011
Reading your review again, yeah, I have to say that it did offend you and I would not be surprised if it offended a lot of people. The direction definitely played a powder keg and I think he knew it. I thought it was bold but I cannot argue your logic as to where you are coming from. Sometimes, there are some stories that arguably don't need telling. I liked this one as it was bold and wasn't afraid to try and tell it how it was in the dark ages, but I see your point. Great review.
March 19, 2011
It seems it did not offend a lot of people, given its status on Rotten Tomatoes. The film opened nearly a year ago in the UK and has done well, both commercially and critically. I haven't read too many American reviews for it, and given its limited release, it probably won't do well financially. I have a feeling, though, that if it had been given wide release, I would be even more in the minority. But hey, I'm used to it. I think Roger Ebert and I are the only people alive who thought Knowing was a brilliant film.
March 19, 2011
remember you are talking to a guy ho enjoyed "Robo-Geisha" LOL! So I know that feeling all too well myself.
More Black Death reviews
review by . March 19, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
An Examination of Faith and How Contradictions are Present in Human Existence...
Sometime in January this year, I went to see the Hollywood medieval horror film “Season of the Witch” with very low expectations. I have eagerly awaited to see the movie that seemed to have inspired (to me)the idea that disappointing film had tried to portray with mainstream audiences in mind. I wanted to see a real movie about the period when the Black Death ran rampant throughout the land; I wanted to see a story beset in that period as to I could see the fear that such a horrible …
review by . June 26, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
*** out of ****     Not too long ago, I was in a World Studies classroom, studying the material covered in Christopher Smith's "Black Death". You could say that I was studying the Black Death/Black Plague itself, but then you would be wrong. We did not go in depth; we studied for only a few weeks, never quite touching the complex things. So this provoked me to dig around for my own; salvaging historical information regarding such a disastrous catastrophe. And let's just say that …
review by . February 28, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
'Black Death' Two Jews On Film Feel The Horror Of The Plague With This Historical Gem (Video)
' '   Black Death' directed by  Christopher Smith (Severance) takes place in Europe...The year is 1348...And things aren't going so great.  The Bubonic Plague has broken out and threatens to basically decimate everyone in its path.  Fear and superstition is at an all time high.  No one has figured out that the Plague comes from a rat bite.      The Church is starting to lose its grip on the people which of course makes the holy …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #2
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, a young monk is tasked with learning the truth about reports of people being brought back to life in a small village.
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Director: Christopher Smith
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Horror, Mystery
Release Date: 11 June 2010 (UK)
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Dario Poloni
Runtime: 97 min
Studio: Egoli Tossell Film, German Federal Film Board, Kulturelle Filmförderung, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
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