Black Death Dir. Christopher Smith

[Magnet; 2011]

Styles: horror, action, period
Others: Witchfinder General, Season of the Witch

Despite both a title tailor-made for late-night cable viewers and filmmaker Christopher Smith’s pedigree in the horror genre, Black Death actually falls closer in spirit to Andrey Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev than Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch, the recent Middle Ages-set horror/action/Nicolas Cage amalgam that features a nearly identical plot. Perhaps reflecting the malaise of economic downturn and society’s inevitable need to locate a scapegoat as the root of the cause (in medieval times, Bernie Madoff would have been burned at the stake), both Smith’s film and Season of the Witch tell the story of Christian soldiers on a mission to determine if black magic is the true source of the bubonic plague. While Cage and Sena seem content to rest the blame on good old Satan (not to mention provide a revisionist fantasy in which defeating the dark lord cures the disease and spares much of Europe’s heretofore victimized population), Smith actually attempts to situate his film in the historical era.

The thrust of Smith’s film centers on the conflicting world-views of Ulric (Sean Bean), a knight in the service of a high-ranking bishop, and Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a novice monk. Although ostensibly on the same side religion-wise, Ulric and Osmund differ in their opinion about the existence of evil and, more importantly, its ability to take supernatural forms in this world. Ulric firmly believes in both witchcraft and necromancy, and draws from this the notion that God is the source of moral order and stability in the world. Because of this, he takes an almost realpolitik view, willing to commit horrific acts of violence to ensure the status quo. Osmund, on the other hand, questions such superstitions, seeing them as excuses for angry mobs and power-hungry men to enact their will. Although Osmund never goes so far as to deny the existence of God, he suffers an additional crisis of personal faith through his love for a young woman (Kimberley Nixon). However, both Osmund and Ulric find their creeds tested when they arrive in a village that appears to have been spared the ravages of the titular plague after reverting back to paganism.

Smith resists the temptation to mock the beliefs of any of his characters, from the pious warrior of God to the pagan witch. Through the film’s lens, the issue is not what these people believe, but the actions they are willing to carry out in order to ensure dogmatic victory. And while much could be said or written about the atrocities of Christian witch-hunting — Smith even includes an episode in which Ulric executes a likely innocent woman — the film shows how the pagans employ similar cold-blooded brutality to enforce their beliefs and protect the village from external views. The film does not present a war of ideas, but instead a literal hacking, maiming, and torturing. Even the actual existence of dark and demonic powers proves to be a red herring: Osmund believes he sees his lover reanimated during a ceremony, but the “witch” who performs the deed later taunts him by suggesting it was a trick of herbal drugs — or, in other words, peasant science.

Although Smith seems to be making an argument that the willingness to kill for one’s beliefs is universal, he fails to explicate the exact nature of the pagan villagers’ creed. While it is refreshing to blur the line between the villagers xenophobia and Ulric’s fanaticism, it seems like a wash to paint the actions of the former as a crude self-defense. The epilogue, which shows Osmund masquerading his personal vendetta as a heroic crusade against evil, provides an even murkier conclusion to the already clouded debate.

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