Dir: Christopher Smith
The bubonic plague is thought to have wiped out 30 to 60% of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1353. However, Christopher Smith’s film Black Death is less about rats and festering buboes than religious hypocrisy. A band of Christian warriors sets off to find a village hidden in the marshes, rumored to be plague-free. Yet, that is just a subterfuge to attract young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) to be their guide. In reality, this hoary band is out to stop a pagan necromancer who inhabits that village and bring him back to the Bishop so he can be put to death.
Neither the Christians nor the pagans in Black Death escape judgment; both are oppressive hypocrites, according to Smith and screenwriter Dario Poloni. Right away it is established that even our young protagonist Osmund is guilty, having his end away with Averill (Kimberley Nixon), directly violating God’s will. When he prays to God for guidance, it arrives in the form of Ulric (Sean Bean who could have just stepped off the Lord of the Rings set) and his crew. But what does this arrival mean? Averill has fled hours before, telling Osmund to meet her in the very swamps near this village. Is Ulric a sign for Osmund to renew his piousness or an escape route to reunite with his lover?
Much like last year’s Valhalla Rising, Black Death’s Europe is one of dirt, blood, violence and mist. As Ulric, Osmund and the other warriors descend into the dark wilds, Smith paints the woods not as a place of repose but an evil place where man returns to his most primal. Despite Ulric and his men’s allegiance to God, it doesn’t take long for them to become violent. While fighting off a band of thieves, they bite into flesh, chop off heads and show no mercy at all.
Osmund remains the film’s moral compass for most of the film, especially when he must choose between the Christians and the equally vicious pagans. When the band arrives at the secluded village, Black Death quickly becomes a horror film of the dead being brought back to life, crucifixion and one particularly horrible death involving two horses. Or is it? Perhaps Smith and Poloni are trying to prove a point, using sleight of hand to show us miracles that don’t really exist. At least, that’s what they’re saying about religion.
For much of the film we are asked to choose between the Christians and the pagans, our allegiance wavering back and forth until we realize neither group is innocent. It may be a cynical outlook but during a time when God is blamed for a pestilence that wipes out most of Europe, how could such a God be considered kind? With no completely likable protagonist and some slow spots, Black Death is far from perfect. It is not meditative like Valhalla Rising yet shares a similar point of view on the futility of religion. Hell does exist and it’s created by man. No miracles or promises will ever make that untrue.
by David Harris