Ireland in the 13th century is an island divided by war and fraught with peril as close as the next turn. An isolated group of Benedictine monks are the keepers of a holy relic when the church in Rome calls upon them to deliver it. Led by the zealous Cistercian monk, Brother Gerladus, under the protection of their Norman escorts led by Raymond De Merville, and God, the monks head into unknown dangers.
Included in the small troupe is novice monk Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), an innocent young man who has never left the commune. Jon Bernthal’s The Mute is asked by the abbot to go along and escort the relic but moreso protect the young Brother Diarmuid. He could be up to the task; his body is scarred, presumably from a scrap or five. His past remains a secret though some of De Merville’s men believe they recognize him. His past will come to the forefront when the group is first attacked by a group of Gaels.
There are two main action sequences and the violence is brutal and gory. Mostly the action gets lost within the action and the framing but Brendan Muldowney does pause to focus on key moments of physical destruction equally amazing and horrific. A moment of torture midway through the film is equally disturbing and graphic.
Pilgrimage stands as a condemnation of people using faith and religion to pressure or influence others. The relic stands a physical manifestation of the Christian faith and anyone who possesses it would be able to influence everyone around them to their will. The Church wants to use it to bring about victory over the Muslims occupants of Jerusalem. Those who want to steal it from the monks want to use it to hold power where their kingdoms lie as well.
But it is not just the relic that holds power over the characters in the story. Their faith is used against them as well. Brother Geraldus spouts Liturgical Christianese as often as he breathes, to the point of nauseum. Whenever any of the group are in peril he reminds everyone that they will receive God’s glory in Heaven for their sacrifices, saying it so much that it almost becomes indistinguishable noise.
Whatever it takes to get the relic to Rome, then to Jerusalem, sacrifices must be made to complete their mission. It is God’s will after all. Note also that it is his mission to get the relic to Rome by any means possible, except when it comes to putting his own life on the line.
Reactions to Pilgrimage are going to vary. Those looking for a straight out action adventure film may be disappointed in the minimal amount of action and tension in the chase. This is not a straight all out medieval chase film like say, Neil Marshall’s Centurion. The action and violence is very strong and gory but some may find it lacking is all. Because the story here is more about this group of monks and their reactions to the dangers around them and the testing of their faith, internally and externally, likely a viewer’s association or experiences with any belief system may have more impact on the viewing experience.
It reminds me of the varied reactions to the original French horror film Martyrs, in that anyone who grew up in the church and studied the martyrdom of Christian believers had a different reaction to that film than someone without that understanding. Not that theirs was any less of a valid reaction to the film. Our knowledge of those events shaped our reaction to the second half of that film. The same can be said for Pilgrimage. Anyone who has even been a part of the Christian faith is going to have a different response to Geraldus’ spontaneous and frequent sermons.
There is a modern day relevance to the story in Pilgrimage, of art imitating life, this story of using one’s faith as a weapon against another culture or religion. Had I watched this a few days earlier it may not have fallen in right after the day an evangelical adviser to the megalomaniac in the U.S. said that their god has given this person "full control" to take out the leader of North Korea.
It also made me think about a video I watched from a couple of years ago where the president of one of the largest Christian universities in America (the son of an equally belligerent televangelist) urged his students to carry concealed weapons on campus in order to “end those Muslims” who could attack the campus. These are prominent Western Christian leaders either encouraging violence against a people and culture or a religion and that it is their god’s will that it happen.
But then all of human history is layered with ‘god is on our side’ confrontations.
Pilgrimage is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will soon be available on VOD and Digital HD.