Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Black Death – Review

Black Death – Review

Jan 30, 2014

reviewed by Philip
directly by Christopher Smith, 2011
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Black Death is a German produced 2011 adventure/horror film directed by Christopher Smith. The movie follows an envoy of medieval soldiers, led by knight Ulric (Sean Bean), on order from the bishop of the Church to locate a remote village that has strangely been unaffected by the black plague pandemic. When the envoy stops at a monastery to ask directions, a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) quickly volunteers to lead them to the village. His reasons are less than altruistic. Osmund’s lover, Averill, has left the safety of the monastery due to the plague having arrived there and was heading in the direction of the aforementioned village. Osmund figures this must be a sign from God that he should pursue his love and forsake the walls of a monastic life.

En route to the village the envoy encounters a young woman who is about to be burned at the stake by an angry mob for “blessing” a water well which ended up producing the arrival of the plague. Although the lady was trying to protect the village, she was nevertheless suspected of witchcraft. Osmund desires to help set the woman free and it appears that Ulric is in agreement, but after taking her off the stake, Ulric quickly slashes her throat and breaks her neck. When told by young Osmund that she “was not a witch”, Ulric explains that he acted out of mercy, since the villagers would have recaptured and burned her.

Once arriving in the forest where the village is located, Osmund locates Averill’s horse but is devastated when he also discovers her blood soaked clothing nearby. Ulric describes their real reason for being sent on their mission – the Church has learned that the village has forsook God and has turned to witchcraft. Apparently, there is talk of a necromancer living in the village, one who can bring the dead back to life. Their orders are to identify this necromancer, place him or her in a torture device, and return them to the bishop. In case you can’t tell, there is a Star Wars Episode III similarity brewing.

The two leaders of the village, Hob and Langiva, are initially very friendly and welcoming to the envoy. Langiva develops a friendship with Osmund and shows him a body they found in the forest. Sure enough, it is Averill. Extreme grief begins to negatively affect Osmund as the rest of the crew continue to discern who the necromancer really is. Osmund follows Langiva into the forest and to his astonishment and fear, watches her raise Averill back to life. He runs back to tell the envoy who have all been drugged into a deep sleep. When everyone wakes up, they are in a water pit and are told the reasons the village has enjoyed a plague free existence – they long ago renounced God and began living under the power of the necromancer. Langiva offers them freedom in return for forsaking God. They all deny the offer, except one soldier who is ultimately killed anyway (the traitor is hanged, a nice nod to the hanging of the original betrayer, Judas Iscariot). Osmund is released to spend a few moments with Averill in a tent. He notices she is unable to focus and is mentally lost. He attributes this to her being wakened from the dead and stabs her in order to give her peace. Ulric is drawn and quartered. During an ensuing scuffle, the remaining soldiers free themselves with a knife and begin to destroy the village. Langiva finally reveals the truth to Osmund. Averill was not dead, she had simply been drugged by Langiva in order to keep the village people in awe of her “power” to raise the dead. All of this finally creates such hatred in Osmund that he becomes a torturer and begins hunting down heretics in the “name of the Lord.”

Black Death attempts to ask, and perhaps in some instances answer, several spiritual and ethical questions. Does God show displeasure by sending destructive plagues? What is genuine mercy? Does the denial of God produce harmful consequences? Or is it the propagation of the gospel that is to blame for suffering? The film pits the warm hearted monk Osmund against the fundamentalist knight Ulric, but ultimately attempts to demonstrate that in the world of Christianity, the line between the two is dangerously thin. The movie attempts to show that regardless of the starting place, a life lived in the teachings and consequences of Christianity will eventually find itself bitter and alienated from anyone who might think differently. In this way, Black Death unashamedly seeks to demonstrate how the world of the 14th century and the world of the 21st century are closer than we might think. Not much has changed.

This presents an intriguing glimpse into the practical repercussions of spirituality that is based off works. With very few exceptions, the spirituality of medieval Europe was a rewards based religion where God most blesses those who most please him. Therefore, if you do good enough, God is pleased with you. If you do bad, God bumps you down a few levels on the righteousness scale. Thus, two dangers inherit with works-based religion are 1)guilt and 2)expectation. Guilt because we will always fail to keep the commands of God and expectation because when we are doing right, we expect God to appropriately respond with blessing. God becomes somewhat of a vending machine – put in the good works and we expect the machine to dispense the candy.

In that way, Black Death is correct to say that not much has changed. Despite the Protestant church’s declaration of the gospel – that we are saved by grace through faith – we nevertheless revert back to a performance based standing with God. Osmund, despite his life of devotion to God, found himself overcome with feelings of betrayal by God and anger against God because the love of his life was taken from him. The machine did not dispense the candy equal to the works given.

Where Black Death fails is in the message it was probably most attempting to convey – that religion, especially 21st century Christianity, is ultimately nothing more than fundamental hypocrites who excel at oppressing the human race. No doubt Christianity has seen its dark years and continues to cast a stain on the name of Christ through extreme groups and actions. But it is disingenuous to suggest that the actions of a small few are indicative of the whole. If Black Death is making a statement against the oppressive tendencies of the 21st church, it first needs to determine who is actually looking through too narrow a lens.

Apart from the clear spiritual implications of the film, Sean Bean is always wonderful and the direction is, for the most part, well done. There are moments when the camera could have been a bit more steady and fluid, but that is nitpicking. I found myself interested in the film, not only for the overtones of Christian thought, but also for the story itself. It’s worth a look.

 

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