Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dank and Murky: Black Death

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church preserved the classical knowledge of antiquity, even though the Greeks and Romans were obviously not Christian. This crucial undertaking does not even earn mumbled thanks from one heavy-handed new genre film. Forswearing subtlety, Christopher Smith’s Black Death (trailer here) is simply a long, dank Catholic bash, which stumbles onto screens this Friday in New York.

The year is 1348. The plague has ravished Europe, but being stupid Christians, they ascribe supernatural causes to the pestilence. Reportedly, there is a remote village somewhere in the Brothers Grimm forest that remains untouched by the disease. Of course, witchcraft is the only conceivable explanation. So off they go, with the film’s one ostensibly likable Christian to guide them.

Osmund might be a monk, but his soul is conflicted. Having taken a woman as his lover, he is using the trek as a pretext for reuniting with her. As a rather sensitive lad, he is out of step with his rough new companions, including their fanatical leader Ulric and the impish torturer Dalywag. Indeed, as Christians, they naturally travel with an officially designated pain dispenser, but he will not have much opportunity to apply his skills. The wise pagans have plans for Ulric’s company once they finally meander into their Potemkin village.

Frankly, Death is a lot like the films that get roasted in Mystery Science Theater for their interminable walking sequences. Aside from a really good death scene late in the game, there is precious little action in the film. Mostly, it is just Ulric and company wandering through the forest, dragging their knuckles on the ground.

Given how thoroughly the deck is stacked against his character, it is rather impressive the extent to which Sean Bean fleshes out the zealous Ulric. Unfortunately, most of his comrades are little more than interchangeable troglodytes. As Osmund, Eddie Redmayne looks appropriately lost as the film begins, but becomes increasingly unconvincing as the film chugs along. At least, Death has a worthy villain in the mostly likely sorceress Langiva, played with frosty aplomb by Carice van Houten (who was so riveting in Paul Verhoeven’s underappreciated Black Book).

In truth, Black Death might as well be called “Christians Hate People.” It really is just about that nuanced. Slow and clumsy, Death will most likely disappoint genre lovers of all stripes when it opens this Friday (3/11) in New York at the Cinema Village.