After waiting patiently two years (my “Pilgrimage” folder in my HD is dated June 2015 – no comment), I have been able to watch the movie. I wonder if the DVD would ever have been released if Tom Holland were not the new Spiderman. Whatever the reason, finally this film has been released, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.
This is my very personal review of the film, full of spoilers.
Pope Innocence III has ordered a cistercian monk (Stanley Webber) to bring to Rome a sacred relic kept in a distant Irish monastery. The pilgrimage of this group of monks will reveal itself full of perils, not only from the gaelic natives, but also from the Norman knights deputied for their protection. The group from the monastery is formed by three friars, a young novice (Tom Holland), and a “converso” (John Bernthal), that arrived to the community five years before in mysterious circumstances.
In Jamie Hannigan’s script there’s small room for surprises. As soon as Raymond de Merville, the Norman knight, appears on screen, we know that the monks’ pilgrimage is condemned to failure. Should this be an opera, when Raymond takes off the helmet in his first scene, the movement would have been accompanied by sombre string and brass notes, as those of Scarpia in Tosca.
Even if we don’t give importance to the fact that when the novice surprises Raymond flying a messenger pigeon he over reacts (the following challenge of the mute in the novice’s defence anticipates their final epic fight), it is obvious that, when Raymond disappears just in time to avoid an ambush in the forest by the same celtic tribe he’s supposed to chase, he’s the deus-ex-machina of the attack. Nevertheless, in my opinion, if the predictability of the plot can be a weakness for many, it is not for me. The mania in recent years for twisted plots and surprises may result in a unintelligible chaos full of gaps and plot holes. Better to tell a “simple” story well than trying to build an Inception-like plot without success.
The author has chosen to leave the backstory of the characters untold, but I think that the relationship between Raymond and the Mute would have deserved more space. It has been hinted with very few but powerful lines, but unfortunately without any previous knowledge of what was the Constantinople siege during the fourth crusade those lines are less effective.
Luckily for me I have still fresh in mind a reading of some months ago, Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, the story of a knight belonging to the king Federico Barbarossa’s retinue. The protagonist witnesses the most important historical facts during is long life, including Constantinople’s siege. The fourth crusade and this siege were characterised by relics’ commerce and its utmost cruelty.
The crusaders pillaged the city, trying to take by the force all the money that they were promised but, as usually happen in medieval wars, not paid. We all know that crusades were a bloody business, as Ridley Scott showed in his film, or for instance, the ghastly episode of the so-called Children’s Crusade. The fourth crusade and Constantinople’s siege added to the usual amount of cruelty the fact that, although the excuse was, as for the previous ones, the retake of Jerusalem, the first result was the taking of the Christian city of Zara and then was decided to destitute the head of the bizyantine empire in Constantinople. It was not a fight against Muslims, but Christians, with the ultimate objective to pillage as much as possible. As Raymond says when referring to the strange tool he will use to torture one of the monks:
There was other method apart from direct robbery to make money: to pillage the relics hold in the city’s churches, or directly to create them. This is a paragraph of Eco’s “Baudolino” (the poor translation is mine)
That’s not a bad idea – said Boidi – you go into cemeteries and you find Saint Paul’s chin, perhaps not the head but Saint John the Baptist’s left arm, and so on, the remains of Saint Agatha, Saint Lawrence, those of the prophets Daniel, Samuel and Isaiah, Saint Helen’s skull, a piece of the Apostle Philip head.
Not only that – said Pevere, eager for what was to come – you only have to dig deeper and you find a piece of Bethlem’s manger, a tiny tiny piece, just not to realise where it comes from.
We will make relics as never seen before – said the Poet – but we’ll also remake those existing already, because prices of those known go up and up.
We know that Raymond was in Constantinople, and that he witnessed probably the commerce and creation of sacred relics. Some as improbable as a flask of Virgin Mary’s milk, the thorns of Christ’s crown, fragments of his cloak, skulls, limbs or organs of many apostles, saints and prophets.
No wonder that when greeting Friar Geraldus he asks him if he has taken his “souvenir”, later he will define the coffer containing the relic a “pretty box”, and when he learns the story of the precious relic (the stone that dashed off Saint Matthias’ brains and that burned afterwards all the pagans that touched it) he only says full of sceptical sarcasm:
Raymond knows that most probably that is not the very stone that killed the saint, but acknowledges its value: it’s believed that it is. Therefore, when his plan to stole the relic to offer it to king John in order to “blackmail” with it the Pope himself is aborted by the mute, he knows he can replace it with any other rock in Ireland:
Even if we don’t find the relic another stone will do. We’ll put it in a pretty box and people will accept it. Even a king. Or a pope.
but not as long as the group of monks remain alive. Chances are simple: if they give up the stone they live because they can grant for its authenticity; otherwise, they must die.
What is Raymond backstory apart from what we know? Perhaps some years before he joined the crusaders in Venice (the sponsor of the crusade) while his father remained in Ireland to conquer gaelic territory and when he returned, years later, he was “damaged goods”. He got, during that fight, not only scars on his face, but also on his soul. The aim of that sacred venture was reduced to the end to manslaughter, serial rape, and massive killing of Greek Christians and European merchants. When he returned, transformed in a ruthless war machine, he despised his father for his “easy life” and cowardice. But he found was also despised by the men who remained in Ireland and do not recognise him any more. Raymond will revenge of all of them. Fournier, faithful to his father, will fall during the orchestrated ambush of the Celtic warriors. His father, that has become a coward who wants to obtain the salvation of his soul by donating “that rock” to the Pope, in his plans will be defeated and mocked by his own despicable son. No wonder also, being Raymond the archetypal villain that he is, that he is loyal to that wicked king John of the Robin Hood saga (following Guy of Gisborne’s footsteps 😉 ).
The biggest mystery in Pilgrimage is the mute played by John Bernthal. According to friar Ciàran, the herbalist (played wonderfully by John Lynch: the most authentic “tortured person” ever seen on screen), he arrived to the monastery five summers before, in a small boat without food nor water, and has never spoken a word. It is his body that speaks for him: strong, muscular, with a big cross tattooed in his back, that is also full of scars.
Raymond and his men recognise him. The knight pretends not to be sure where he has seen him, but I think he recognises him on the spot. Perhaps the mute was a veteran of the third crusade, the so-called Crusade of the Kings, and was loyal to Richard Lion Heart. Maybe his differences with Raymond began in Venice, the gathering departing port of the fourth crusade, and the conflict arrived to its peak in Constantinople. Which were the sins that, according to Raymond, the mute had to expiate?
Why was he stranded in the Irish coast, too shocked to utter a word and with his back covered by whip scars? I’d like to think that he opposed in Constantinople not also to Raymond’s loyalty to King John, but also to his methods. One thing was to fight by the side of the Lion Heart against Saladdin’s soldiers, and other to cut merchants’ throats, rape their daughters and destroy Christian churches in Constantinople.
The conflict between the cistercian monk (Stanley Webber) and the novice is more evident in the film. To return to Umberto Eco, Fra Geraldus is a mix of the diehard Bernardo Guy, and the fanatic Jorge the Venerable. Geraldus is a strong believer of the official militant church of those days. To him, there’s only one truth, there’s only one vision of the Church and God. There’s room only for piety, not for pity: the pope wants the relic, and he will have it, no matter what it takes. He will sacrifice without a second thought friar Ciàran and the mute. Or even the novice, when he gets in his way, and eventually himself, dragged to the bottom of the Irish sea by his own fanaticism.
Fra Geraldus’ single-minded fanatic view of religion will open the eyes of the novice. The herbalist, a father-figure for him as William of Baskerville was for Adso (Umberto Eco looms again and again throughout this story), will sacrifice his life for all of them, dying with the name of Christ in his lips. It will take few days for the novice to open his eyes: the sight of Geraldus’ fanaticism destroying also his close-friend, the Mute, is more than he can bear. When the last of the monks die wounded by the arrow of one of Raymond’s men, he realises that the rock that he has carried through the forest and the bog is nothing but a dead weight far away from what Christianity really is: the religion of the honest sacrifice of the herbalist and the simple life in the small monastery by the sea in the far west of the known world, not that of kings, soldiers and the pope of Rome.
Pilgrimage is a highly enjoyable film: the cast is perfect for every role, and all the actors make an incredible work. Richard Armitage plays the perfect villain, cynical and ruthless: he has a goal and he does everything to achieve it. The use he makes of the English language accentuates what Raymond is: an alien. Still no Englishman but no longer a Norman from Rouen, someone that has seen what man can be at his worse and that he accepts and supports it in order to achieve his goal: power and recognition for his family.
John Bernthal plays the soldier with post traumatic disorder with great skill; the mute is not an easy role to play and he does it without following the easy path of an exaggerated histrionics. The untold story of the mute is in John Bernthal’s eyes. And he nails it.
Tom Holland, the novice, is the look of the audience, that faces the cruelty of the medieval ages for the first time: the punishment of poachers that fish in Baron of Merville’s lands, the ambush of the Celts to the monks and the final duel between Sir Raymond and the mute. The violent ambush in the forest is useful to understand the mute as a deathly war machine.
The score is brilliant, and the Irish landscape a protagonist by itself. The big issue of this film is that 90 minutes are definitely too few, and prevent the transformation of this Pilgrimage from enjoyable to epic. I can imagine what this story could have been with double budget and thirty more minutes of footage. But with the same actors; I doubt this story would have been told so well with a different cast.