Film Review: Black Death

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This isn’t heavy metal. It’s radioactive.

(Black Death, Christopher Smith, UK/Germany, 2010, 101 mins)

A crop of encouraging reviews sprouted before Black Death. There were inevitable comparisons, some apposite – Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man – others quite tangential – Aguirre Wrath of God, or sixties Bergman. There too were entirely inaccurate conclusions – Black Death, it seems, is rippling with ‘narrative energy’ and unmitigated ‘entertainment’. While ‘watchable’, it is precisely a lack of narrative dynamism that leaves us disaffected with Dario Poloni’s story (however enchanted we may be by Christopher Smith’s Dark Age demesne). Brutal, morose and dissatisfying, Black Death ought not to be undertaken lightly.

[Note: this review reveals some details best left undisclosed, for maximum suspense]

A youthful monastic type is quarantined, awaiting news of the latest victim. In 1348 the Bubonic Plague pandemic has reached its peak in Christendom – more than half the population would succumb by the turn of the century. We are immediately thrust into a situation of intense paranoia. Young Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is conducting an illicit affair with the beautiful, vulnerable Avrill. He commands her to flee the homestead, for it will soon be wracked with disease. Unsure of whether to trail her through the wilderness and leave his father’s monastery, Osmund prays to God for a sign. Circumstances deliver him Ulrich (Sean Bean), a hoary, grizzled knight – the Bishop’s envoy. The man seeks a village supposedly untouched by plague, in order to root out the idolatrous magic at work.

Soon Osmund finds himself in the uncertain company of a band of monstrous villains and zealots, riding atop a mobile iron maiden. Encounters with a witch-burning mob, files of self-flagellating penitents and the loss of one companion all reveal the moral complexities of their world-view – contrasting humanist mercy with fanatical, superstitious pragmatism. Eventually the sinister gang arrive at an apparently idyllic woodland village where, evidently, something is not what it seems. Pagan-witch-come-pharmacist Langiva (Carice van Houten) is clearly in charge of the place, and after offering Osmund a chance at escape, transforms the final act into an orgy of torture and sacrifice.

By deliberately eschewing genre, Black Death will probably disappoint audiences of gore-hounds, horror-fans, action-goons, history-buffs alike; audiences comfortable with convention will be a little baffled, and the film simply cannot be called a crowd pleaser. Christopher Smith is a stylist; the trappings of genre are largely red herrings. His film doesn’t deliver consistently in terms of fright, thrill or spectacle. So what? Black Death wants to be something more than the sum of parts.

Its characters inhabit the neighbourhood of camp, without ever compromising sincerity. Occasionally lines of dialogue come off as humourous quips, but the murk, foreboding and ever-present threat of violence make it unsettling enough; the performances are credible enough; the script is spare enough, and the design has sufficient historical verisimilitude to comprise something arch but not risible. As you laugh with the film, you commune with its hysteria and mania. This may or may not be your idea of fun.

Perhaps you will enjoy the aesthetics of the film. Smith sometimes lacks formal ambition; at others, his camera dazzles. Financed and filmed entirely in Germany, Black Death benefited from accomplished Teutonic design and photography teams. Those Germans filmed this patch of countryside beautifully and hauntingly, on an evidently tight budget. The anamorphic widescreen is at first irrelevant, given disappointingly slack framing and tight, shaky, subjective shots. But it develops into a vital asset when evoking the landscape of both highland and forest, while affording Smith the real estate to make exciting use of action both in the fore and background, in and out of focus. There is, too, an evident preference for special effects in place of computer trickery. This lends the film tactile qualities, a weight, a meaty substance. In fluctuating between the sublime and the lazy, as in so many other respects, Black Death’s visual qualities have an ambivalent effect on us – not unlike that experienced by Ulrich.

Black Death has a structure ill-suited to the development of empathy for any of its darkly scribbled characters, however full of shadowy potential they may be. Persuasive performances work hard against the inevitably perfunctory screen time each but the protagonist is given. In the case of the young friar, that empathy is wasted by a narrative that offers three decisive personal turning points, yet denies him any discernible growth or change in character.

Osmund embarks on a quest, leaving the monastery behind him, but changes little under the auspices of his cheery chums. His love is slain in the wilderness, and his despondency resembles shocked stasis (while his initial horror is swept away in a sudden flurry of violent action). He is confronted with purgatory (in the form of the reportedly re-animated Avrill) and turns fanatical, but too late in the game to really move us – and again, the violence sweeps away any reflection on Osmund’s predicament. Only in the tacked-on denouement does a vicious, reborn Osmund emerge – as if in a before/after cameo, we are privy to none of the transformation. This is a fundamental disconnection – fatal given his situation between two essentially intransigent fanatics – Ulrich and Langiva.

Too little empathy, even for vivid creatures of the imagination, does not a compelling movie make. What in Black Death is there for us to care about? Its narrative bounces along with aplomb, without ever developing substrata. The film requires a different sort of ‘energy’ – a centrifugal force, some deep dialectical tension to capitalise on all that moody anxiety. Where might we find some subtextual movement?

Smith says “It’s like a dark parable about how things haven’t really moved on in the last 600 years.” A fanatical knight, with his retinue of torturers and militants, takes it upon himself (out of grief and superstition) to crusade against non-believers. The Godless sacrifice the Christians to their own vengeful God by pagan rite. Is God punishing man? Is the Devil tormenting him? Are either real? If one decides they are not, will they be slaughtered by zealots for paganism? Does one turn to other idols and become equally fanatical? Or does one continue to believe in God but turn against the servants of that vengeful force?

Medieval Christendom is a world where all these beliefs co-mingle; where the fantastical is as real as grim reality to some, absurd to others, but always enough of a force of division to result in horrific acts of hysteria and brutality against one another; a world in which extreme suffering and hardship has accelerated this revelation of our inhumanity. Sounds rather a lot like today, no? I guess that’s the point.

Smith creates an air of suspicion and disbelief. We continually question our prejudices as we follow an unreliable set of characters crusading against an apparently amoral, yet peculiarly ingenuous bunch. Unfortunate, then, that we find out the pagans are indeed a sadistic rabble of idolators, confirming our suspicions and making us complicit with the zealots. Once they begin sacrificing Christians to a God they have little faith in, supposedly to keep away the Christian disease, simple horror at human ignorance (and the total silence of any god) comes to the fore.

It’s hard to fathom why the film has drawn comparison to the oeuvre of Bergman. Perhaps the creeping dread, or the sense of foreboding hanging so dismally? As in the famous cycle of Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, we are essentially waiting for the news that there is no God. But there is no such subtle treatment of God’s monstrosity, conspicuous absence and final silence. All that’s held in common is the subject – nothing resonates in form or content. If Black Death is really about God’s non-existence, men’s bitterness and the baselessness of their cruelty, nothing new is said. What is said is murmured, incanted as if a Gregorian chant, then smeared across your face like the stump of a severed leg.

“The Year of Our Lord, 1348”, reads the title card. That irony of Black Death is peculiar to this time. When human suffering peaked in 1348, it coincided with the consolidation of total spiritual hegemony of the Church in Europe. Mankind had to reconcile the hideousness of nature to their new, unfathomable faith, by evoking divine pestilence. They drew on God’s vengeful and cruel past to explain the real present. Similarly, Smith engages with cult genre traditions creatively (not entirely derivatively), in order to connect the conceptual to the physical action. Smith lures us with a quick first act, action-packed second, into a third act dominated by gruesome and stomach-turning clashes of superstition.

While none of this comes off as profound, it is cleanly executed, and amounts to a disconcerting and melancholic medieval nightmare. Such praise does not guarantee an evening of light entertainment, you will be assured. Black Death is brutal, bizarre, and not much smarter than it seems. It’s formally lightweight, but its subject is heavy. Leaden doesn’t quite capture it – this isn’t heavy metal. It’s radioactive. Beware.

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