“As sure as the sun rises and falls, witches will burn.” – Black Death*
Tonight I had a couple good laughs watching the medieval horror/thrill Black Death. The movie was not an intended comedy, nor do I mean to make light of the film or to say that it was intentionally funny. But once you have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is hard not to remember it when there is anything to do with the Black Plague or witch burning. This is not the fault of the filmmakers. The movie itself is unique, interesting, and gritty. Although it pulls from other films like The Wicker Man, it puts things together in an original combination.
The film stars Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne plays a young monk during the bubonic plague in the 1300’s. His monastery is wracked with the dead. He has a secret love of a girl in the local village. Due to this he secretly wants to leave the monastery and the death that surrounds him. When Sean Bean, who is a knight in service for the church, says that he needs a guide, circumstances drive Osmund, Redmayne’s character, to lead Ulrich, Bean’s character, on a journey. They are searching for a village that has not been touched by the plague. They believe it has made it untouched by the plague due to a necromancer and black magic.
The movie treats the situation as realistic, from the viewpoint of the people that are living in that time and place. The viewer does not know until late in the movie if there is any supernatural element to the movie, or it is just the superstition of a backwards religious people. This is a dark film, with gritty violence and all manner of barbarism carried out in the name of religion. It is suspenseful and bleak. Torturing and many forms of dismembering take place throughout the film.
However, Hannah Arendt once said, “that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” As Monty Python demonstrated, through the clarity of hindsight, the beliefs of those times are completely absurd and ridiculous. Although the characters may or may not be dealing with the supernatural, I don’t want to spoil anything, you know that they are largely on a fools errand. When local villagers want to burn a woman at the stake for supposedly putting a curse on the local water supply, one can’t help but feel, knowing such things happened, as being a complete folly. The actions of many of the people in the movie are so absurd, yet realistic, that is somehow passes through the looking glass and becomes somewhat of a comedy of human behavior. I don’t want to portray the movie as a farce. I’m not even saying that the movie depicts the actions of these people with anything other than serious. However, it is because it is so straight that you realize just how absurd this behavior is. When a character is drawn and quartered it is completely horrific. Yet once upon a time our ancestors did that kind of thing.
Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder why this time period is depicted in more movies. It is strange and horrifying enough to be almost fantastic, yet interesting because it is not fantasy. This movie takes liberties with the time period, and the story itself is fiction, but many of the things that people do to one another, many of the beliefs, are real. I found this movie to be entertaining, gripping, interesting, and yes funny at times. It is also batshit insane. When they are venturing out to find the possibly supernatural village they come across men walking down a stream whipping themselves and carrying a large cross. These people are punishing themselves to make penance with God. They warn the main group not to go any further. If these are the people warning them, what kind of further insanity waits down the road?
Although this movie is first and foremost a horror movie or thriller, it does ask questions about the nature of evil, religious belief, and human nature. One can’t help thinking about what is going on in the world currently due to religious strife while watching it. It is entertainment with intelligence. It looks and feels differently than the typical Hollywood movie and that is because it was filmed in Germany, even if it has several stars in it. The camera work and art direction is gritty and realistic, though gothic in fitting with the time period.
Tragedy plus time equals comedy. While I watched this film I couldn’t help but wonder what actions of modern times will look completely ridiculous to those hundreds of years in the future.
The famous witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
* This quote may be slightly paraphrased. It was late, we were already watching something else, and my internet searches came up empty. If not exact it gets close enough to the original’s intent.