Black Death is not merely vile, sadistic, cruel, and ugly, it’s also deeply immoral. In the fourteenth century, as Bubonic Plague ravishes Europe, an isolated English village has managed to keep out the pestilence, first by renouncing God, second by torturing and murdering Christians who kill in God’s name. The fatal flaw of this premise is that it gives credence to reprehensible acts of violence on both sides of the religious spectrum. The thinking is, if I’m a Christian who believes it’s God’s will to commit murder, and if you’re an atheist who’s fed up with the years of intolerance and persecution, then it’s acceptable for you to murder me. You have in the process demonstrated that you’re just as intolerant as I was. How depressing that we have exemplified equality through our mutual lack of compassion.
Religion has historically been used to justify some of the worst crimes against humanity, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust to the 9/11 attacks. We don’t hear much, though, about the totalitarian regime installed in Albania after World War II, which enforced an atheist state. Under the Agrarian Reform Law of 1945, the properties of religious institutions were seized; by 1967, under the rule of Enver Hoxha, all religious freedoms were officially banned. During the next twenty-four years, those who were caught practicing religion, or even those in possession of a religious object, were subject to humiliation, vilification, incarceration, and in some cases, execution. The latter includes Shtjefen Kurti, a Catholic priest whose crime was baptizing a child in secret.
It’s unconscionable to persecute someone in the name of God. On the same token, there’s no theory under which it’s acceptable to persecute in the name of “a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.” In both cases, basic human rights are violated. Dogma goes both ways. If you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim, it is not your right to preach to me about what I should believe. If you’re an atheist, it is not your right to preach to me about what I shouldn’t believe. Faith – or lack thereof – is an individual process and should be observed privately. There are enough problems in the world without fanatics of all persuasions trampling on someone else’s beliefs.
And with this, I return to Black Death, which preaches at us in extremes from both ends. The result is so much worse than a hopelessly confused film; there is not a single likeable or engaging character to be found. On the religious end, we have a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), whose faith prevents him from being with the girl he loves, Averill (Kimberley Nixon). He coaxes her into leaving, since Plague is decimating the village. Alas, he cannot go with her, for it would be considered a sin to serve God away from his monastery. But then a group of Christian mercenaries, led by the pious knight Ulric (Sean Bean), enters the monastery and appeals to the monks for a guide to a faraway village; it has been untouched by Plague, and is rumored to harbor a necromancer, meaning someone with the ability to bring the dead back to life. For Osmund, this is a golden opportunity – the village the knights seek is not far from where Averill said she would wait for him. He volunteers to lead them.
They eventually wind up in a marshland community, and although it is indeed free of pestilence, the villagers appear kind, peaceful, and prosperous. The leader, Langiva (Carice van Houten), even invites them to a communal supper. Ulric is not convinced. Why is the leader a woman? Why do the women outnumber the men? And why do they seem genuinely confused when they bow their heads in prayer? I have, of course, already alluded to the reality of the situation, but I haven’t yet gotten into the film’s more perverse aspects, most notably the relentless violence. The goriest teen slasher-film would be hard pressed to top Black Death in sheer visual depravity; in the course of this film, we will witness throats being slit, decapitations, burnings at the stake, stabbings, and even someone getting their limbs torn off by horses.
This plays into the overall ugliness with which the film was photographed. The color scheme is muddy and muted, as if dirt was smeared on the camera lens. Landscapes are almost always overgrown, shrouded in fog, and littered with rotting corpses. This may, perhaps, be a way in which the film is “effective” – they were, after all, called the Dark Ages for a reason. But a visual style cannot make up for the screenplay’s complete lack of decency. There’s no reason to tell this kind of story in this particular way. Absolutely nothing will be gained by seeing it, apart from a profound sense of nihilism. The more I think about Black Death, the sadder I get; it depicts humanity at its worst, and I have a feeling it will only appeal to the worst of humanity.
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