Film Review: Pilgrimage

A bloody slog through medieval Ireland, 'Pilgrimage' falters in the execution of a compelling tale.
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From the vivid stoning that opens Pilgrimage, to the moment an ear is ripped off in the midst of battle, the harsh violence in this religious-quest thriller reinforces the notion that the Dark Ages, and any era before that, were savagely perilous times. Especially for those who didn’t command an army or wield a weapon, it was necessary to believe in something or some being who could protect the weak from harm.

Several different forms of belief clash in 13th-century Ireland, as depicted here in the slender story of a mission during the Crusades to move a Christian relic from a monastery on the Emerald Isle back to the Holy Land. The relic—believed to be imbued with the divine power to separate the faithful from the faithless, and vanquish God’s enemies—is guarded by an order of dutiful monks, who live on the island’s desolate west coast. A white-robed Cistercian brother, Geraldus (Stanley Weber), arrives at their abbey with orders from Rome to bring the relic from its sanctuary “at the ends of the Earth” back to the front in the battle for Christendom.

While the Church powers want to use the relic to inspire Crusaders fighting to retake Jerusalem, the monks don’t want to disturb the precious historical artifact in their care. But Brother Geraldus quickly puts to rest any discussion—“Rome has spoken. There is no debate.” Thus, the monks assemble a mini-order, led by Brother Ciarán (John Lynch), to escort Geraldus and the relic, encased in a jeweled chest, to Ireland’s eastern shore, where the Cistercian will make passage by boat back to Europe.

Along the way, the small band—which includes novice Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland) and a mysterious, brooding mute (Jon Bernthal) who was sheltered by the monks—must protect the relic and their lives from wandering thieves, invading Norman soldiers, and hordes of Gaelic warriors. In one rare clever scene, Geraldus combats the locals’ pagan beliefs in faeries and curses with his faith in Christ and belief in miracles and demons. Otherwise, the script by Jamie Hannigan eschews much humor, as the relic gets stolen, and stolen back, pursued, then lost, then found.

Camps are raided, limbs are shorn, and the whole savage journey is shot with a shaky handheld camera that distracts mightily from the action and imagery. It appears that a great deal more of the budget was spent on fake blood than on tripods and other stabilizing equipment. The red syrup flows and gurgles, as director Brendan Muldowney exercises a practically Dark Age predilection for deploying swords, maces and other entrail-twisting implements of torture and violence. Some of the weapons onscreen exhibit more personality than the characters, only a few of which are allowed any personality at all.

Brothers Geraldus and Ciarán, played with grit and urgency by Weber and Lynch, make a strong impression representing opposite poles of spiritual authority—one brother who preaches fire and damnation, and another who embodies piety and sacrifice. Caught between the two priests, sweet and noble Diarmuid is merely a pawn in this bloody holy war. As such, Holland does fine with very little. The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage at least breathes some fire into the plot as Raymond De Merville, a Norman knight who might or might not be on the side of good.

De Merville's suggestion that he could put any rock inside a pretty box and fool his king, or even the Pope, into believing it’s a divine relic sounds like the most pointed line in the movie. A jewel-encrusted case for a jagged hunk of rock is a fairly apt description for this wobbly illustration of how the Church uses fear and intimidation to draft warriors into its holy army. Behind all the spiritual philosophizing and wisps of computer-generated fog, the real mission seems to be slashing and maiming as many men as possible in under 98 minutes.

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