Director: Brendan Muldowney
Cast: Tom Holland, Jon Bernthal, Stanley Weber, Richard Armitage, John Lynch, Rúaidhrí Conroy, Hugh O'Conor, Tristan McConnell, Eric Godon
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 8/11/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2017
An intelligent theological debate plays out beneath the bloody carnage of Pilgrimage. The time is 1209 A.D., between the Fourth and Fifth Crusades, but the place is Ireland, "far from the Holy Land" for which people are fighting, killing, and dying. It's a place where Christianity exists, but so, too, do ancient superstitions and people who have felt betrayed by a God that they once believed would protect them. At its best, Jamie Hannigan's screenplay plays like a fable, drenched in Irish folklore, inquisitive of what constitutes legitimate faith, and set amidst a landscape that looks as timeless as the questions the characters find themselves asking.
The main question is the nature of humanity—whether we are inherently peaceful or violent, whether the purpose of life is tranquility or conquest, whether we are capable of bettering ourselves or doomed to keep repeating the same cycle of war over and over again. These are big questions, and they're ones that the film isn't completely capable of addressing in a significant way. At its core, the story is an adventure across rough but beautiful terrain, in which the heroes discover enemies without and within their ranks. There's nothing particularly unique about the tale itself or the way it seems to find Medieval violence around every corner, but it's propelled by those questions—even when it isn't asking them directly.
The film begins with a prologue in 52 A.D., as a Christian is martyred by means of a brutal stoning, as the clouds above protest the killing with thunder and lightning. In the 13th century, the stone that served as the coup de grâce has become a holy relic of the Church-recognized saint. It is rumored to possess great powers, namely the capability to burn one's enemies where they stand.
The relic is protected at a monastery on the west coast of Ireland, where it's kept in a locked and adorned chest that is housed in a deep hole. These monks have taken its protection as their vocation, hiding it from invaders and willing to die should anyone attempt to steal it. The youngest of the group is Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), who spots some soldiers on horseback while returning to the monastery with a mute man (played by Jon Bernthal) who has served as the monks' helper since washing up on shore years ago. The leader of the soldiers is a Cistercian monk named Geraldus (Stanley Weber), who has come by order of the Pope to retrieve the relic and bring it to Rome. It will be used in a forthcoming Crusade for Jerusalem.
The monks don't want to give up the stone, but they definitely won't deny an order from the Pope. A group of monks, including Diarmuid, will accompany Geraldus from the monastery to a ship in Waterford, which will transport the lot to France. From there, it's to Rome.
Needless to say, the crew doesn't make it that far, because there are many dangers in the woods and even more dangers among them. Of note is a battalion of Norman soldiers who are trying to conquer Ireland themselves. Their leader (played by Eric Godon) is an old man, who has spent his life serving in military conquests (The monks find him and his men in the shadow of a burning castle).
Now, realizing that he likely will die and be buried in this foreign land, he wants to atone for his sins. The monks are outraged, but the Normans have an alliance with Rome. Who, again, are they to disobey the will of Geraldus, who has been appointed by the Pope to carry out the Holy See's wishes? Anyway, to fight and kill in the name of Christ is to obtain salvation—at least that's the way of the Church at this time.
This is the central conflict—between the peaceful devotion of the Irish monks and the warring mindset of the soldiers for the Church. The latter group includes Geraldus, who, despite his holy title, is dressed and acts like a warrior. He fits in more with Raymond De Merville (Richard Armitage), the son of the Norman baron looking for last-minute redemption, than his nominal kin in robes.
There are battles as the journey continues, of course, although it's possible they could have been avoided, if not for Geraldus and Raymond's enthusiasm for punishing the members of a native tribe that they accuse of stealing. As staged by director Brendan Muldowney, the violence here is marked by its brutality, which includes a sword breaking as it's yanked from a man's skull and a torture device that eviscerates its victims. It's telling that the cruelest acts of violence are perpetrated by those who seek to conquer, even if they have, at a certain point, announced that they're willing to betray the Church in their desire for more territory. It's Geraldus who wants the stone to be used to smite the Church's enemies. He believes in that superstition but shuns the notion that ancient fairies have poisoned a stream.
There's a lot here, and it might too much for the film to juggle (The mute man does become something of an easy out for the story—a soldier who can do all of the violence for the monks, so that they can keep their hands relatively clean). Even if all of it doesn't quite come together, Pilgrimage is an adventure that at least shows some care for the ideas underneath the action.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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