New Spider-Man Tom Holland stars in an action-adventure with Richard Armitage — of The Hobbit and Hannibal fame, for starters — and Jon Bernthal, who’s in this summer’s hip hit Baby Driver and is about to debut as Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix. This seems like a no-brainer to market to Hollywood’s supposed core audience of teen boys and young men, so how is it possible that Pilgrimage debuted almost unheralded in a few cinemas in the US with a simultaneous VOD release, and went straight to the DVD in the UK?
Ah. Well. Pilgrimage, as it turns out, may be brutal and bloody in its sporadic explosions of shocking violence, but it’s not sensational: this is cinematic violence that is not titillating or cathartic but simply the harshest manifestation of life in a harsh world. Set in early 13th-century Ireland, this is a grim depiction of medieval realities, from death that lashes out sans warning — and death that is sometimes dealt out with torturous deliberation — to the grip that superstition and magical thinking hold over otherwise reasonable people. Pilgrimage — third feature from Irish director Brendan Muldowney, and the first from screenwriter Jamie Hannigan — is moody, atmospheric, even beautiful in its grimness, and a chilling futility hangs over everything that happens. So, you see, this is very much an indie, very nearly an arthouse sort of action-adventure. This is not, alas, anything like a mainstream movie. (“Alas” not because I’d wish the film was more conventional; “alas” that this sort of movie isn’t considered to have wide appeal: it’s not that outré.)
The year is 1209, and an emissary from the Pope arrives at a monastery in stark, remote western Ireland. Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber: Trap for Cinderella) has come to collect the saintly relic that the monks keep careful guard over, to bring it back to Rome, where the Pope imagines it will help in the ongoing Crusades, which are going badly for the Church. The relic — I won’t reveal what it is — is said to have near magical powers: one of the monks tells a story about Viking raiders who tried to steal it once, and met a nasty end. Young novice Brother Diarmuid (Holland) and a lay brother known only as The Mute (Bernthal) will be among the band of monks who will accompany Geraldus; later they will meet up with the small army of Norman invaders in the country for a spot of conquering on behalf of King John of England, where they’ll collect Raymond De Merville (Armitage), who will lead their military escort.
Things go… poorly. Maybe the relic doesn’t want to leave Ireland? Certainly the idea of the relic has a hold on all the men in ways that are so profound that it alters their behavior, perhaps in ways that could never benefit their mission. Theirs is a land and a time beset by superstition that warps the imagination horrifically, and where religious traditions clash in ways that are by turns gruesome and horrifying: Christian they may be, but the Irish monks still cling to pagan beliefs, and so refuse to drink from a stream that runs through a “fairy fort,” and the curse Geraldus hurls upon those mischievous unseen fairies (so that he may drink the water) is, well, pretty intense. (Pagan reminders that neither Christianity nor the Normans are welcome are rife.) At every turn, faith is wielded as a weapon and religion as a means of control, almost always a violent one. And being a true believer doesn’t appear to lessen the cynicism with which that control is used and abused.
Pilgrimage really is quite an extraordinary little film, with a remarkable attention to realism and detail, not only in things like costume and language — half the dialogue is in French, Latin, and Irish; the rest is in obviously anachronistic English, mostly for expediency, I suspect — but also psychologically and morally. There’s a real feeling of visiting a time in the distant past, and spending time with people who see the world differently than we do. There have certainly been many films set in medieval Europe, but this one doesn’t feel like we’ve seen it before.