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 plague could’ve inspired.
Well, “Black Death” is one film that does satisfy my curiosity somewhat. Directed by Christopher Smith with script by Dario Poloni, this film is a reflection of the period and feels like a historical fantasy horror that is brutal, ascetic and can be seen as a haunting dissection of fundamentalism. I liked the way it manages to translate the rigors of faith and perhaps the fragility and strength of man’s inner spirit. Oh, the film is quite a horror film in its own right.
In 1348, the Black Plague has been bringing death to almost every corner of Europe. Osmond (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk whose devout service to God has caused him to doubt his faith and has led to him having a secret affair with a young woman in his village. When a knight called Ulric (Sean Bean) and his group of warriors (that includes John Lynch) enlists Osmund as their guide to find a community where a necromancer reigns, they set out on a journey across the land with their torture devices that can be used to force witches to confess. Having to face one peril after another in this disease-ravaged land, Osmund, Ulric and their band seek refuge in a village not stricken with the black plague. They suspect that something is amiss with a young woman called Langiva (Carice Van Houten) as she may indeed be the witch that they have set out to destroy….
With a title like “Black Death” one should know that this film would be hard to take. Not hard to take as with unrelenting violence and brutality, but rather hard to take because of its premise and the graphic imagery. Someone had told me that it was cruel and I have to admit that he was right. The pain, anguish and mental state of such a period is on full display. There is a very black, dark and pessimistic psychological area that the direction renders throughout the film; it touches the points of the areas of devotion and quite frankly it says something about the fragile state of man’s mind. How some need something to hold on to, for good or ill.
The film is quite violent. Ok, it wasn’t so much as gory or brutal as some of the French horror entries I’ve seen, but it was the manner where the sadistic violence were injected into the premise. ‘Black Death” uses psychological, religious and fanatical fervor to make its points. It touches upon the extremes of devotions, the nature of such beliefs and how people tend to hold on to these beliefs, even if the price may be their own souls. Some people also find a form of justification to their actions as demonstrated by the film’s characters. Ulric is a fanatical warrior who would do anything retain his faith. He would kill, cheat and finds reason for such actions as he sees them as a purging of evil. Osmund may have more selfish reasons to his journey, he is blinded by his love for a woman and uses his devout beliefs as a way to justify his actions. The other members of the band were more or less in for it because of the money that the church had promised. They use their belief in God as a sword to bring salvation in their minds, it is a time when religious fanaticism ran rampant, and when sorcery may indeed exist (or does it?)
I suppose one may say that the film brings a mere believers against unbelievers premise and they would be right. In the film’s last act, the viewer becomes privy to the struggle within Osmund as he becomes tempted by Langiva. It was an exercise of faith in the face of magic and beyond the limitations of Christianity. It was heartbreaking to see such psychological pain inflicted on one man. Screenwriter Dario Poloni goes into different directions to display acts of sacrifice as he examines the disturbing manipulation of faith. It was a war within, how one can be torn to one belief and yet his heart may belong to another. The uncertainty of devotion versus the visible Earthly certainty as promised by a witch. I will have to say that I was impressed with the way the direction mixes in human drama, violence and cruelty, with brain-freaking inertia as he plays with a potentially offensive material with this premise. It makes the drama quite effective.
The film does look very moody and the cinematography captures the anguish in its premise. The muck and paranoia of that era is exquisitely captured by Sebastian Edschmid as he renders the landscape as a near-wasteland that makes the calamity caused by the plague appear to be visual art. One problem that I did have with the film was that it felt like it was longer than it actually was, I know and I appreciate movies with a lot of mood and character-building, but the film does move rather slower than necessary. It felt like it took its time to get to its heart-rending final act; I know the direction wanted to build the story and characters so the viewer can be invested, but some scenes felt like minor fillers that sometimes felt a tad unnecessary, the pacing suffered as a result.
In this world, you see how extremes can lead to doom, and how our fanatical beliefs may indeed lead to damnation; whether by the hand of God or by some other agent, unreasonable obsession and murder will lead to ruin. “Black Death” is a feral motion picture and it is not an easy film to like. It expresses scary contradictions on human incident and the limitations of our understanding that may ask us to look upon what we have seen; as the film plays on today’s growing fanaticism, blind beliefs or lack of. I am almost certain that it will drain a lot of its viewers and may even alienate some. “Black Death” is a horrific film that dares to go there; it is brutal, focused, sadistic, cruel and definitely thought-provoking. It is a haunting, bold examination of faith, then it transforms it into a poem of pain and suffering that is indeed suffocating and scary.
Timid Recommendation, Not a film for everyone [4 Out of 5 Stars]
*** 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 … more
' ' 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 … more
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. … more