FanTasia 2010: Black Death
I'll use James' synopsis from his own review. It is with a slight touch of trepidation that I submit my response to Smith's film... Sean Bean heads the cast as Ulric, an envoy to the Bishop, leading a ragtag band of Christian soldiers on a mission to explore a mysteriously disease-free village in an otherwise Plague-ravaged Britain. Enlisting the help of young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) to lead them, these hardened and gruff troops head off in search of the village. Rumour has it a Godless 'necromancer' - someone able to bring the dead back to life - is responsible for the safety of its inhabitants. On arrival, some shocking discovers are made and different breeds of fundamentalism collide with horrific results.
Black Death touches on themes that are relevant today; fear mongering. exploitation and manipulation of fear, religious zeal, questions of strength of devotion, why has thou forsaken us? There is plenty to chew on. Historical accounts of the church's reactions to the plague went from punishment for sin to curse of Satan as the plague made no religious discrimination amongst religious believers of any kind. But it is the taking of that fear and using it as a manipulator; that is something that the screenplay touches on. And it is not just the Church either. No one is free from this sin as the viewer discovers throughout the film.
Black Death also speaks about clashing ideologies; if God cannot save us from this plague then we must look elsewhere. It brings to mind, I guess, the nation of Israel being led through the desert by Moses. This is their own proverbial wandering in the desert for forty years. Where is God? He is not here. Who will protect us then? This village makes their golden calf and inevitably will account for their actions. I only say that because of my background and education. It is a personal response and observation to the theme. Because, afterwards you still cannot completely admit it was God punishing them for their disobedience. As one of the warriors, Wolfstan, speaks at the end of the film it was only a matter of time before the plague reached them. As I said before, disease doesn't discriminate between faiths or those with none. Response to this film is merely subjective.
Black Death is about the direction, the path of religious devotion that Osmund takes even past the events at the village; that is the core of this story. For Osmund has his own reason for wanting to lead this band of warriors to this remote village. Little does he know that it is at this village Osmund's faith and devotion will come to question as well. The Abbot of his parish said he was too young and inexperienced to lead these warriors. But it is his actions that prove otherwise. And these actions determine the course of his faith and how he lives it out after those events.
Perhaps someone who has grown up in the church, or, better yet has had their own conflict of faith, can better relate to the convictions and struggles of Osmund and this band of warriors. The catch of making a film about religious zeal and devotion is that it risks distancing a viewer with no conviction of their own. Or do I presume too much? For there is a lot of dialogue about God, faith, devotion and recanting. It speaks to me on a personal level because I have grown up in the church and had my own conflicts of faith. The concern is if someone with without an understanding of this can sit through a film where it is the focus of screenplay? It raises interesting questions at least.
For fans of Smith's previous works he uses the violence sparingly to speak of the times and the desperation of the survivors. He doesn't use it so much to entertain, which may disappoint fans of his previous works where violence and entertainment are akin. Side note, briefly speaking at the pub last night, Smith declared he wants to get back to the style of his previous films, do not despair. Having said that limbs being hacked off or torn off will always be entertaining but this is not the meat of the film. Which is why I imagine the brawls and melees were filmed so frantically with hand held cameras as to not draw focus to the act but the frantic nature of it.
But everyone deserves the right to make a more serious minded horror film now and again. The audience just has to be aware of this heading into it. That of course falls into the hands of the marketers, not Smith. He has made a good film here from a screenplay which may have limited reach in the end.
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