Review – Pilgrimage (2017) Edinburgh Film Festival

by Old King Clancy

The nature of films, and indeed all media, means that comparisons are almost inevitable and it’s important to remember that just because a film isn’t as good as a similar films, that doesn’t mean it itself is a bad film. Case in point, Pilgrimage comes across as a mix between Valhalla Rising and Silence,  without the visual trip of the former or the heaviness of the latter, but still within it’s own rights is an enjoyable and interesting examination of faith.

Set in Ireland in 1209, the film follows a small group of monks who are tasked by Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber) to transport a mysterious and powerful artifact known as The Relic to Rome and present it to the pope in the hopes that it will help his ongoing crusade. In this group is a young Diarmuid (Tom Holland), a novice to the Order on his first mission outside the Monk’s settlement, and a violent man known only as The Mute (Jon Bernthal) who seeks penance for an unspecified sin.

The group is found by Raymond de Merville (Richard Armitage), son of the local Baron (Eric Godon) and Captain of the French Army, the Baron offers protection in exchange for absolution before his final days. Raymond betrays the Monks, killing several of the group and attempting to take The Relic for himself to use as a bargaining tool in the Crusades. With only a handful of them left, the Monks fight through the impossible odds to see the safe delivery of The Relic.

On paper it doesn’t sound like the most original of stories and to an extent that’s true but it works in execution, while the driving force of the plot is the protection of The Relic. The film cleverly includes questioning of faith and the nature of doing right in a world that’s gone so wrong. It’s not as pronounced as Silence, but man’s relation to God does play a part and you get the sense that religion doesn’t have the same power that it use to, it’s a small addition, but it adds to the story nicely. The biggest problem with the story is that the last 20 minutes feel rushed, it feels like we’re warming into the third act, but it soon becomes clear that the film is actually coming to an end leaving a sense that there was more story to tell, though I guess wanting more of a film isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The characters all worked in conjunction with this, particularly the main four and their relation to the Faith. Diarmuid, Mute, Geraldas and Raymond are portrayed differing levels of belief that helped to drive them through the film. Diarmuid is the youngest of the Monks who’s lived too sheltered for his own good and sent with The Relic in the hopes that he can experience the real world while seeing the hardships the Monks are trying to change. Being as young as he is, Diarmuid does try to do things without bloodshed, often at times taking a riskier path to avoid someone getting hurt, it’s a noble but foolish endeavor that he learns as the film goes on. Not that he gets more cynical, but he starts questioning a lot more, particularly from Geraldus whose blind faith seems to be causing more harm than good. Admittedly it’s not a role that requires a lot from Holland, but after seeing him take on Parker in the MCU, the contrast with the much more passive and naive Diarmuid shows a good range on the upcoming actor.

Geraldus portrays the truly faithful, having personally met the pope and acting as his representative in on this mission. What’s interesting about Geraldus is that the same faith he gets his strength from is what ultimately makes him weak. He is so focused on the delivery of God’s message that anyone who doesn’t believe, he sees beneath him and once we learn of how far he’s gone in the name of his faith, it solidifies him as the film’s hidden villain. It’s a very subtle evil, unlike Raymond who openly tortures people, Geraldus works through manipulation without even realizing it. The character orders others to do his bidding in the name of the Lord and is the type of character you need in a film like this to show the faults of the faith from within, and how such a man effects the mission as a whole.

The Mute is a mysterious figure who arrived at the Monastery and hasn’t spoken a word since, however due to his brute strength and unwavering loyalty, the monks allowed him to stay. While The Mute does have belief in God, it’s clear he doesn’t care much for the sillier aspects of faith, his main priority is survival and he won’t let superstition stop him. The Mute is a character that very easily could’ve turned selfish, but Bernthal keeps him focused on protecting the Monks, either through a sense of loyalty or a greater belief than he’s willing to admit. Even without saying anything, Bernthal has that fury within him to make this character work and he stands as one of the best parts of the film. He does have a single line at the end of the film, but what he says and the meaning surrounding it just makes the character that much more intriguing.

Rounding out the cast was Raymond and what made him interesting as a villain was just how convinced he was he was doing the right thing. Whether it was his time in war, his father’s needless rally for peace or something else entirely, Raymond had come to view God in a lesser fashion, he still understood the power of belief, but his own faith was waning. And looking from his perspective you’d be forgiving for thinking that Raymond had a point, he wanted The Relic to empower the King and strengthen his alliance with the Church. He’s convinced himself of his own noble intentions, but you know someone like Raymond wouldn’t be able to stop himself from claiming power and Francis Dollarhyde’s mentality to deliver a chilling antagonist.

The one main flaw I can give director Brendan Muldowney is that his vision far exceeds his budget and it does show on-screen. A lot of the film is shot in deserted forests or rural marshes, even the finale takes place on a beach. It’s fine for what the film is looking for, but there’s very little imagination and without notable historic landmarks, the film can’t help but feel off. Pilgrimage ties into what I said about the finale feeling rushed, the budget on the film must’ve been smaller than expected, and corners had to be cut. The locations are forgivable, but some of the fight scenes are noticeably trying to appear a lot bigger than they are with an ambush being the film’s wannabe highlight. The irony is that towards the end when The Mute takes on Raymond’s men alone, the one-on-one fight worked a lot better.

Where Muldowney works best is how he’s able to work with the film’s thematic weight. When I came out of the film I was going to say the film didn’t take a side on the nature of faith but thinking about it now, I think the film was notably critical towards organized religion. With The Relic in tow, a lot of faith based events start occurring but there’s always a logical answer as to why they are happening. A bolt of lightning strikes The Relic leaving it unharmed, but perhaps the metal chest The Relic is kept in acted as a conductor.  A bell rang out during the ambush to signal The Mute as God’s avenging angel, or it could’ve been the sound of a spear piercing a helmet. Raymond even says himself, The Relic could easily be replaced with something else and people would still believe in it, where faith in this world is dying and the remnants are fighting a losing battle. Ultimately, it comes down to how you view the film, are the Monks holding on to a dying dream of faith or does their uphill battle against the faithless provide greater incentive to see their quest completed.

While it may have taken pointers from other films, Pilgrimage is still a great film in its own right. The film tackles the question of faith in a faithless land and makes for an experience both entertaining and insightful.

I am giving Pilgrimage 4 out of 5 hairpieces! 

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