Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Dario Poloni (screenplay)
This British film is set in the Middle Ages, during the first outbreak of the bubonic plague, a.k.a. the Black Death, in England, where a young monk is tasked with learning the truth about reports of people being brought back to life in a small village. The local bishop hears of a village where people are not affected by the plague and this bishop believes it is because of the leader in that village being a necromancer.
The bishop dispatches some soldiers of the cloth (Knights Templar) to go and get the leader so that he can be brought to justice. Read here, captured, confess under torture, and publicly executed for his crimes. In typical Middle Ages fashion, there is little distinction between sacred and secular, as the sacred, in this case the Roman Church wields power over the secular and compels the secular powers to do its bidding. The leader, Ulric, the Knight Templar is Sean Bean, who definitely knows how to wield a sword (Sharpe (television) and Lord of the Rings). These Knights Templar see themselves as agents of God, doing God’s bidding, even if that means violence and killing in the name of God for the Kingdom of God, read here, that Kingdom of God is the power of God on the earth, the Pontiff of Rome and the power he wields as well as all his bishops.
The Knights Templar come to the monestary to find a monk who is familiar with the area to act as a guide. This guide, Osmund, is played by Eddie Redmayne (from The Good Shepherd, Savage Grace, and The Pillars of the Earth), who plays a monk in crisis, who is secretly in love with a woman and must deal with the conflict of serving God and the Church or follow his heart. This conflict follows him throughout the film, and in the end leads him to do what only he can do, compelled by conscience.
The acting is well played by a cast that includes David Warner, Carise van Houten, Kimberley Nixon and Tim McInnerny. They all play their roles convincingly in telling the brutal story of the Black Death and how it impacted society. There are scenes of death everywhere, bodies strewn on the streets, bodies being carted and being burned in fields. There is billowing smoke and the stench of death, and you can see it, and if you allow yourself, you can well imagine the smell of the burning flesh.
There are a few compelling scenes which stick out in my mind. One is when on the journey, the monk runs to intervene in what appears to be the torture and death of a woman at the hands of a mob. She is accused of putting a curse on the town’s water supply, simply because she was caught reciting some words over the water, and shortly after people began to die. She protests that she was simply praying for the water, for God to keep them well. The Knight Templar (Bean) interferes and confronts everyone, and cuts the woman down, embraces and begins to walk away with the woman, only to kill her with the very knife he used to cut her down. He then disperses the crowd, and as he leaves with the monk, he warns him to never do that again. He then says, he spared her the pain of what these people would have put her through, meaning torture and death.
This kind of brutality is telling. To kill in the name of God and for the sake of God is beyond comprehension to me, and yet there is plenty of historical evidence to the truth of it. Yet, it still breaks my heart at one level and at another it makes me terribly angry at how this defaces and besmirches the very person of Christ. This is what Christendom has done. Christendom has nothing in common with Jesus Christ or the Kingdom of God.
Many argue that we are in a “post-Christian” world. No, we are not. Christendom never was Christian in a biblical sense. It was the marriage of sacred with secular power. Plain and simple. It was the very opposite of Christ and His Kingdom. We are living in a pre-Christian world, and the Kingdom of God continues to break out and expresses itself in tangible ways the love and the grace of God in the lives of people impacting other people for good, for justice, for truth. This film is a reminder of the truth that is needed in our own day, the truth of Christ, not draped in patriotic flags and fanfare and military might sanctioned by both secular and sacred powers, but a movement of people compelled by love to reveal Christ in grace, peace, truth and service.
Another scene that will be with me for a very long time, is the scene where one of the men (knights) who have been drugged and put in cage in the water’s edge of the village, accepts the offer of freedom if he recants his faith. This jolted me to my core. I have never seen this on film before and as my daughter Caitlin will confess, I have watched a ton of films, including international film, and none have portrayed this kind of betrayal and rejection of faith. This man moved by fear and self-preservation, decides to recant, much to the open and public dismay of his comrades. The villagers pull him out of the cage and in front of the village and the prisoners is led through a recantation and rejection of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Church. He is then embraced, and is told he is going to be taken out of the village and released. He is dragged away kicking and screaming. It is chilling to watch and to hear. In the woods they put a hood over his head, and then the scene cuts away, and you find his body hanging from a tree. The message is clear, recant and you die anyway. If you don’t recant, you will be tortured to death and suffer a martyr’s death.
This scene really impacted me as to the cost of following Christ. Not all are called to martyrdom, but each year there are over 190,000 Christians who die in nations that are hostile to Christ (according to Voice of the Martyrs). The persecution of Christians has not ceased, and in fact, in those countries that openly oppress and persecute, it is these same countries that have the fastest growth of conversions to Christ. Tertullian once said, “The blood of the saints is the seed of the Church.” Nothing could be truer that this. So, I know, after watching a film like this, as I am reminded even by stories such as the story of Felix Manz, that if I were to die a terrible death for the sake of Christ, He would give me the grace to endure to the end and not deny Him. After watching this scene, I was deeply moved in my desire to not betray my Lord, and for that I am very thankful
These are but two of the scenes in this film. They are scenes that will stay with me. They are scenes that in one way motivate and move me in my walk with God and in my desire to serve Him where I live. This movie is also a reminder of how Christ can be hijacked and used to unleash pain and misery in the name of God upon others, that have nothing to do with God or His Kingdom.
One last scene before I go. The main female role, that of Langiva (Carise van Houten), when the monk asks her about her husband and how he died. She simply replies that he died “at the hands of God men, just like you”, meaning at the hands of the Church. This is all the reminder a Christian needs to fight against our faith being hijacked by political power, and it must be resisted at all costs.
The irony will be felt in the last portion of the film, which I will not divulge here, as the main character, the monk Osmund, comes to grips with what he has endured, and by a concious decision goes on a course of action which I believe will impact the viewing audience in a powerful way.
This film is well worth the watching. If you like history and like to see dramatic, powerful stories within a historical context which still has a lasting legacy in our own day, pick up a copy of Black Death, and sit back and watch the compelling drama that will entertain at one level, and at the same time leave you asking many questions. If a film can do both, it is worth the watch.