Thursday, 17 June 2010

Black Death; there's such a thing as too grim

Incorrigible cineastes among my non-existent audience may well be familiar with a cult British horror film called The Wicker Man, which features pagans, a lone christian, and one hell of a downer ending. It's generally considered that it meets cinema's ongoing need for allegories about the collision between Christianity and paganism, particularly after Neil LaBute remade it for no known reason with Nicolas Cage in the role of tasty barbecue treat.

For those who still think that the jury's out on the question of paganism versus Christianity, the numbers speak for themselves. People like Christianity better, and for the vast majority of customers, replacing actual sacrifices with metaphorical ones was obviously a huge selling point. Wiccans and the rest of them need to take a deep breath and check out the numbers. The people had an election for the religion they liked, and paganism lost. For those who need an imaginary man in the sky and an unverifiable system of rewards and punishments to get them through the day and stop them from shafting the people around them, Christianity's the clear winner. For those who don't need these props; shut up. I'm bored listening to atheists too. If they're a shining example of humanity at its best, people will start copying them. We can figure that out by watching what they get up to, I don't need the damn lecture series. When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done and I'm a little old to think that endless gum flapping is somehow superior to sorting stuff out.

Anyhow, the news that paganism's had its chips doesn't seem to have reached Germany, who have generously hosted the cheery musical comedy Black Death, a largely non-star production featuring a mostly English cast, German locations and an outlook derived from a country whose name I need to know immediately so that I can be sure of never going there and inadvertently stranding myself someplace where presumably the leading outdoor sports are synchronised hanging yourself and the 100 metres off a cliff hurdle.

You can put the point that no-one showing up at a movie called Black Death should be expecting a continuous chuckle fest, and yes, I get that. But I had been rather expecting that they'd keep the grimness at a manageable level. Not as such. It starts off with some establishing business to get across the notion that plague is stalking the land, and then hey ho, off we go with six or seven hard cases and an ingenue monk to find the isolated community which has so far escaped the plague and thus must be in league with the devil. So far, so straightforward. Traditionally, this merry band is going to be whittled away a bit, then confront the enemy and overcome it. If we're going to be less traditional, the merry band isn't whittled so much, and will turn out to be much much worse than the enemy, who are shown to be misunderstood good guys.

For Black Death, they went another way. The merry band gets whittled away a bit, they show up at the village, whose people seem perfectly nice if a bit sceptical about all their Christian ways, and then it turns out that the village is populated by pagans who aren't one bit nice. They drug our merry band and kill most of them in increasingly horrible ways, although the merry band prevail in the end by virtue of being rotten with plague themselves and wiping out the village through infection. Only one hard case and the ingenue survive the ensuing hi-jinks, so it's one hell of a downer plot, really. And it's been pretty grim viewing; all the Christians are grubby, the fights and the killings are brutish and very hard to watch. I was so jittered by it all that my compulsive fidgeting with the clasp on my watch started to annoy someone four seats away from me.

I could take all that somewhat in my stride if they didn't throw in a coda in which we see the ingenue go completely nuts in his later life and march out across the English countryside arresting random women and torturing them to death because he thinks they remind him of the leader of the pagans. That was just completely depressing.

All of that said, it's well acted in lots of places. Carice Van Houten, the leader of the pagan village is marvelous in all her scenes, Sean Bean as the head hard case is solid as always, and John Lynch in the role of designated survivor makes for a nice relateable hard case; he's bad, but he's not TOO bad. And it's entirely true to what it's trying to do; it's telling a grim story about grim times and it doesn't pull its punches. it's just that coming hard on the heels of Brooklyn's Finest, it was more grim than I was in the mood for.

As to which side it comes down on in the Christians versus Pagans question, I have to say that it seems to lean on the Christian side. The Pagans seem nice at first, but they're a ruthless and unrelenting bunch when they get going, and they do have a thing for killing people just to get them dead. The Christians, who've looked like the bad guys up to then, start to look pretty level headed by comparison, and when the two survivors get back to civilisation, the monastery seems like an island of kindness and sanity that the pagans couldn't have delivered.

Weirdly the movie got four stars from the Irish Times reviewers, but it's not the kind of thing I could recommend to anyone I know. It's not the kind of cheery cathartic violence that makes for fun escapism, and it's too bloody gory for the art house crowd. It's all very well and good doing a professional job of something, but it needs to be something people want you to do.

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