13th Century Story Gets 21st Century Treatment in ‘Pilgrimage’

by Warren Cantrell on August 11, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

A religious relic road-trip flick that sports an action-minded underbelly, Pilgrimage does a fine job side-stepping expectations and never fails to keep its feet pointed in the right direction. It’s out today in theaters, on VOD and Digital HD.

Washed of almost all color, and set beneath a sky that seems unfamiliar with the concept of a sun, the gloomy, Gregorian chant-scored film manages to inject some 21st century life into a 13th century story. And while the build-up is somewhat slow, the eventual payoff exceeds expectations, due in large part to the work put in by the leads and a clever script that knows a thing or two about subtext.

Set in 1209 A.D. Ireland, Pilgrimage follows a group of Catholic monks who are tasked with delivering a sacred relic through the Celt-infested forests surrounding their monastery. The stooge that the Vatican sends to oversee this mission, Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber), tells the monks watching over the holy relic that the Pope needs the object’s divine power to inspire yet another Crusade. Geraldus is confident that their Lord’s protection is all the help they’ll need to make it safely off the island, yet the monks living in the area know better. They send a handful of brothers to assist in the journey, along with “The Mute” (Jon Bernthal), an adopted castaway that works for the monks and is as mysterious as he is strong.

One of the monks along for the journey is a young man named Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), who has never ventured outside of the monastery, and is sent to get a taste of the outside world. Not long into their trek, the monks link up with a kindly lord loyal to England’s King Richard, who assigns his adult son and a group of knights to accompany and protect the holy coterie. Trouble looms on the horizon, however, and despite their guards, the monks come under attack and must flee with their prized relic. From here, Pilgrimage transforms into a boilerplate 90s chase movie, a-la Judgment Night, Hard Rain, Terminator 2, etc., which might sound jarring…except that it actually, weirdly works.

Bernthal’s mute stranger with a past reveals himself to be a Rambo-level killer in a pinch, which acts as a great foil to the movie’s big-bad as played by Richard Armitage. To be fair, it’s all a little silly, which almost seems to be the point. Director Brendan Muldowney digs his heels into the deadly-serious tone of the whole thing, scoring the picture with an oppressive Gregorian chant-esque score, which he lays over sword fight dismemberments and face-smashing assaults that would make any Game of Thrones fan proud. The solemnity of the music clashes with the balls-out sensibilities of the action, which seems random at first, only to eventually circle back around on itself to become profound again.

Indeed, the hypocrisy of the church and the monks’ mission is no more absurd than earnest chanting played over ear-ripping, guts-spilling, hand-to-hand combat. Brother Geraldus has no qualms killing (passively or actively) anyone that stands in the mission’s way, which seems like a hell of an attitude considering his chosen profession. For guys like Geraldus (and the movie implies that he’s in good company back in Rome), piety is relative when on a holy quest. Like a holy choir playing over a gutting, it’s not always possible to keep what one believes and what one does in alignment. Holy men though they may be, their actions are sometimes anything but.

It’s an interesting take on an age-old critique of organized religion (tragic hypocrisy), and the fact that Spider-man (Holland) and the Punisher (Bernthal) lead the effort injects Pilgrimage with an extra dose of irony. Just like a monk learning that the world is a cruel, unjust, and violent place despite God’s grace, audiences likewise get to watch as the polished veneer of their cherished superheroes (today’s demigods) wash away. Naturally, the script by Jamie Hannigan would have been written months or even years before casting was finalized, yet the juxtaposition of solemn religious themes against Braveheart-level violence as perpetrated by Marvel’s best and brightest can’t help but to tickle a little.

Another Spider-man, Andrew Garfield, tried his hand at a religious road trip movie last year, and despite its Scorsese pedigree, Silence didn’t connect with audiences. Although Muldowney does fine work in Pilgrimage, one wonders if that’s enough to elevate HIS Spider-man’s version of a similar story on a different continent. Only time will tell, yet being a full hour shorter, and with twice the action and an even more interesting set of themes, it has a fighting chance.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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