Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Christian Perspective on the Film Black Death

Black Death enjoyed a very limited release in theaters, and very quickly appeared on DVD and Blu-Ray. I was initially a little reticent to see Black Death. Uber-gritty, gory horror-type films just aren't up my alley, and I must admit that after reading some reviews of this film, I decided that this movie was something more than just a cheap exploitation flick. Plus, it looked a little bit like that awful Nick Cage movie Season of the Witch. I went into this film still expecting a disgusting, thoughtless movie and left having enjoyed a complex exploration of religious violence and the things that motivate people - Christian and pagan alike.

[The following trailer has what I would call "PG" language in it at the very beginning]

That's not to say that this film by Christopher Smith is interested in accurately representing the theological motivations of 14th century witch hunters, or that the film is a fair exploration of plague-era European paganism. Instead, this is a movie about the reality that every time we think we find the penultimate wickedness within another, we miss that it is really within our own hearts to at least the same degree.

In the movie, which takes place during the height of the plague, the knight Ulrich is sent by the Church to investigate a village on the edge of a swampland that has not been touched by the plague. Supposedly, the village may be using black magic to keep the disease from encroaching on their town. A monk named Osmund joins the journey, and interestingly enough, he does fit one of the five categories that Think Christian identify as the pastors that you meet in films. I would say he ends up fitting in the "lapsed" category.

[Quasi-Spoilers Follow]

The film follows the journey of this band of warrior saints as they travel to the village and as they discover exactly what they thought they would find - a village of pagans who believe that killing Christians is what has kept the plague at bay. Their leader is a woman who has made them to believe that she has the power to raise the dead as a necromancer. What follows is a torturous final half-hour where the men are taken one-by one and offered chances to renounce the Holy Trinity and be spared.

If you're the type to only watch movies where Christians behave ideally, then this isn't your movie. There are no heroes in this film. The knights are murderous, quick to kill, profane and yet dedicated fundamentalists - the bad kind. The pagans are themselves murderous, blasphemers, openly enemies of God. So in the film who do you root for - the hypocritical Christians or the pagans? Well, neither. Many Christians will disagree with my tolerance for corruption in Christian characters in this movie. However, we don't go to movies to see perfect people in action - we go to see something that reflects the world we live in, that we can relate to. If you're looking for a hero, go to the Gospels and look at Jesus. It's a fact that much of Church history, many Christians have not met his example. We ought not to deny or shy away from this fact.

In the case of Black Death, this film pits one form of fundamentalism against another and shows that if Christians fight the world using the world's weapons, they may win, but their whole cause will be shipwrecked. What is the point in a man who nobly refuses to recant if, after he survives, he lives to murder a hundred women as "witches" out of vengeance? Where is the virtue in a village that lives at peace and yet openly mocks and blasphemes the God of Heaven? In this film, everyone is a loser. I guess I'm okay with that portrayal, since I'm a Calvinist. Humanity's heart is dark and desperately wicked. No doubt the sort of atrocities we see in this film occurred in some form or another throughout history. This is not a condemnation of the Church, in my opinion, but a condemnation of mankind.

Here is my caution: the movie is grisly and gory. It's a hard "R" rating. There is some language. It isn't Pulp Fiction, but it's not The Care Bears, either. There is no sex or nudity, but once again, things get very violent. Heads get chopped off, limbs are torn off, and it is done in a brutal fashion - very much unlike the PG-13 violence in Lord of the Rings. This movie tells a thought-provoking story that will give thinking Christians plenty to chew on, but churches aren't exactly going to rent out whole theaters to watch this movie. Put another way: this film is not the next Fireproof.

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