'Black Death' a treat for medieval history buffs

Updated: 2011-03-09 14:32


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LOS ANGELES – You can't quarrel with that title, "Black Death." The film is black all right, pitch black, and death is everywhere.

The story is set in 1348, after all, when the plague began to sweep through Europe, decimating its populace by as much as half and spreading panic to every corner. Yet what a strange land for a horror filmmaker to pitch camp in since he has little to add when horror is a fact of everyday life.

Sure enough, Christopher Smith ("Creep," "Severance") plays with the notion of necromancers and demons lurking within the pestilence, but winds up retreating into a kind of historical morality tale told with documentary flourishes and a grim attraction to violence and cruelty.

All of which leaves "Black Death" without a reliable audience. Horror film buffs like to giggle as much as scream but there're no giggles here. To its credit, the film doesn't indulge in visual-effects devilry as a very similar plague film, "Season of the Witch," did just two months ago. So it's up to medieval history buffs to fill the theaters when it opens on Friday. Lots of luck.

The coincidence of storylines between "Season of the Witch" and "Black Death" is rather striking and in every instance Black Death is the superior film. In both films, the church, seeing its grip on the population severely loosened by this inexplicable plague, sends Christian knights into a remote region to determine if witches, demons or non-believers are the source of this frightening scourge.

In "Witch," church elders are portrayed as cartoon villains, capable of just about any evil in the name of a vengeful God, but the elders do get the bit about devils right -- kick-ass demons are out there bent on destroying humankind. In "Black Death," Smith and screenwriter Dario Poloni take aim at real horror -- painful infections and pitiless death that spread hysterical panic, which causes an already arrogant church to search for scapegoats as all semblance of civil and religious authority crumbles.

The focus here is on two "men of God" -- a knight, Ulric (Sean Bean), who truly believes his sword can slay with impunity in the name of the Father, and a naive monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), whose outlook is more equivocal since he has already fallen for a woman and so realizes that things are never quite black or white.

The monk is to lead the knight and his motley crew of killers and mercenaries (which is all they really are) into an isolated marshland where, rumors insist, a community has mysteriously resisted the plague. This can only mean witchcraft and devil-worship. The intent of these soldiers is painfully clear from the mobile torture machine they lug along with them.

After a skirmish with highwaymen and an incident involving the monk's girl start to test the monk's devotion to his Old Testament God, the somewhat diminished group reaches a small village that essentially contains a hippie commune. Here free love and good health reign under the rule of a glamorous female cult leader (Carice van Houten). The men can hardly wait to start torturing and killing but the witch, sorry, woman, saw them coming long before they entered her village.

So the film orchestrates a test of will and faith between the bloodthirsty true believers and an almost equally bloodthirsty band of non-believers. You hardly know whom to root for, which is the movie's point but one that permits little emotional involvement with any of these lamentable human beings.

An all-British cast brings sufficient vigor to these roles, which includes John Lynch as the knight's second in command, Andy Nyman as the enthusiastic torturer, Emun Elliott as a mercenary warrior and Tim McInnerney as the commune leader's glibly smiling assistant. Germany's Sachsen-Anhalt region is perfect for the dark, brooding design and cinematography that rule out any colors other than which nature can provide in a swampy bog on an overcast day. A hand-held camera and the gritty details add to the sense that a documentary crew has somehow time-traveled back to the 14th century.

"Black Death" achieves its goal of reproducing a medieval Europe awash with rats, filth and rotting corpses and men of violence ready to rip apart the bodies of any who have the temerity not to be sick. It's a gloomy, despicable world and men of God only add to the problem.


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