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The Black Death Tries Avoiding the Plague Like Cliches

The Black Death is about what you think it is.  Set near the beginning of the era of the bubonic plague, it follows a young monk out of his abbey while he serves as guide for a group of knights on an errand from their bishop:  to find a remote village said to be free of the sickness by a pact with the devil, and deliver its witches to the holy authority for condemnation.  What the monk sees on the journey will test his faith, and what he finds in the village will threaten his very soul….

First of all, this film is a really excellent example of what can be done with a small budget if the story is not needlessly inflated.  The story could have been sprawling and filled with extras, but the fact that it is not speaks without any words at all to the lack of huge populations in the wake of the first wave of sickness.  The locations were well chosen to need very little dressing up to appear medieval and wild about the edges, the filming is beautiful and accentuates the landscape’s various moods and tonal shifts in the narrative, and the costumes were simple enough to seem authentic.  For all that the previews for this film talk of the devil’s village and burning witches, this is first and foremost a historical period and not some historical fantasy.  The fears of Hell are used to enhance the story in a is-that-witchcraft-or-not way that seems realistic to the characters’ positions as men of God and men living in harsh times who have no other succor but their faith in the divine.

The most striking thing about this movie, for me, was the power of its bleakness.  There is scene after scene where the members of the little company are given horrifying choices, where one betrays their mission or honor and the other betrays their heart or conscience.  Committing to either choice, or none at all, will only bring more pain, and so each of the men must follow the path he sees as the least of all evils…but every path contains some measure of it.  More than that, you find yourself asking what you would do in that situation, wondering if you would have the strength to make the cruel choice that would cut down on suffering even if it meant the lessened suffering came at your own hands, questioning if your faith in whatever code of honor or belief you held would be enough to resist literally the biggest temptation on earth.  And when the characters make those cruel choices—the rightest choice they can—you feel triumphant for them even as you feel their sorrow at having to commit such an action.  Such is the darkness of these very dark times, and that uncompromising position on the world made this movie for me.

The setting and staging didn’t hurt, either.  The abbey felt cramped and dirty, hemmed in by panic and fear as much as by its stone walls, and the knights were worn and dirty.  The people they met on the road were just as filthy and desperate, the mud pervasive, the burned out homesteads and still-smoking pyres almost quotidian.  In contrast the forest is empty and clean, the village on the other side of the swamp—whose leader pointedly requires the men to bathe before entering any dwelling there—is whole and untouched by tragedy.

Sean Bean plays the leader of the knights, and Eddie Redmayne stars as the young monk.  There were other faces that looked familiar, but no other names I recognized in the cast.  The acting was competent, and in a few places (usually around hard deaths) truly affecting.  This role is not really a stretch for Bean, who played Boromir in The Lord of the Rings and is currently starring as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, but his strength in playing a hardened man of rigid resolve and duty is on display here.

I cannot give this movie a completely positive review because the ending turned me off.  Less in what the events were, perhaps, than in how they were presented.  The movie deliberately cut away any possible ambiguity about what was really going on, and to me it felt vaguely insulting, as though the filmmakers could not countenance anyone misunderstanding their message, even deliberately, because they were not simply telling a story but were delivering a message about the supernatural, and human nature.  I liked it better when we didn’t know for sure, and I don’t think that knowing for sure actually made the events less tragic—it only made them more cynical.

Perhaps that was the point.

Despite my issue with the over-explaining at the end (which could have been avoided with the omission of literally three dialogue exchanges), the finale was powerful.  Some of the ending scenes were the most harrowing of the film—especially the moment where someone is drawn and quartered, which was so understated in terms of sound effects and blood that it made it even more horrible, because it’s probably how it would really happen.

The sheer power of human cruelty is on display like a force of nature to counterbalance the plague itself, as you realize that over the course of the film you see not a single death directly caused by the plague—only human agency in response to it.  It is an expression of human power, to prove that we still have control even amidst a situation that seems so far beyond it.  And, in the end, there is no escape from human nature…just as there is no escape from the plague.  Eventually it touches everything, and the only question left is how each man will face that invisible opponent.  Just as evident is the power that beauty has in the face of ugliness; its  effect is amplified as the world around it grows harsher.

The Black Death is not a film for those who like their medieval settings to be happy and idyllic; this movie’s heart is the brutality, squalor, and relentlessness of desperate times.  If you like that side of life and humanity, then the movie is worth the watch.  Despite my quibble with the ending, on the whole I enjoyed this film.

The Black Death is currently playing in very select theaters and on demand, distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

By Elena Nola

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.