April 30, 2020 Sword of God (Movie Review)
Anyone in the mood for a Polish, Medieval Horror/Thriller? If so, Sword of God, aka The Mute, will be released on Friday, May 1st, 2020 via Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema through Reel Suspects.
Interestingly enough, the film gained a few awards and nominations on the film festival circuit, notably a nomination for the Polish Film Festival’s Golden Lion Award back in 2018. While it did not get the prize, it did get one for Best Cinematography for a feature film! So, what is it all about? Directed by Bartosz Konopka (Rabbit à la Berlin 2009, Fear of Falling 2011), who also wrote the script alongside Przemyslaw Nowakowski (Katyn 2007, The Offsiders 2008) and Anna Wydra (Strike 2006, Because of Love 2007), it is about Medieval colonialism and a clash of ideals. War vs peace, dialogue vs coercion, oppression vs co-operation. That sort of thing.
In the early Middle Ages, a group of knights set sail to introduce Christianity to a Pagan community hidden in the mountains on a far-off island. Their ship gets wrecked on the coast, leaving two survivors to continue their mission. Once they get there, they are torn on their ideals. Wilibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski: The Big Race 1981, The Pianist 2002) seeks to convert the Pagans by force, and his unnamed partner – the formerly titular Mute (Karol Bernacki: The Border series. Amok 2017) – through understanding their way of life. Unable to compromise, one of them will fall. The only question left is which one?
Non-Polish speakers have subtitles to translate the Polish dialogue, though only the Polish dialogue. The language of the Pagans is left as hard to interpret for the audience as it is for the leads. It is not a bad artsy touch. Neither are the visuals, which are really striking. The use of lighting really brings out the cool colors and make the forested island look quite beautiful in places. Yet also foreboding, especially so as the leads trek further inland. Throw in some inventive shots, from first-person views to birds-eye views and more, and one has a cinematographic visual feast for the eyes.
How about the story itself? On paper it could sound like a Medieval Polish take on 1990’s Dances with Wolves. It does not come off that way on-camera as it has a few more facets to it. The Pagans are not altogether noble, as their rituals, appearance, and ways of dealing with outsiders give the audience reason to side with Wilibrord. Though they are not just savages either, their untranslated dialogue still showing reason, worry, and concern. Their ways are harsh, but human all the same.
The same could go for the two ‘civilized’ leads. Neither are one-dimensional figures, as both Wilibrord and Mute debate each other over what the right path to spreading the Word is. Though they have clear sides – Wilibrord is concerned with stopping the Pagans’ brutality, even if it means going to brutal measures himself. While Mute wonders what the truly godly thing to do is. It does not take long for either to reap what they sow, though the consequences are not as clear-cut as they seem.
This approach makes the film feel more authentic compared to its big blockbuster cousins like Wolves or 2009’s Avatar. There are valid feelings behind both sides of the growing divisions, and the historical setting and creeds involved make it more recognizable. It helps that the performances on show are strong too. Likely stronger still if one knows Polish, but the characters’ emotions and expressions shine through regardless of language.
Though it still has some of the clichés present in those bigger films. The scenes of the Mute’s acceptance are a little too close to Avatar territory, especially with the talk of the ‘prophecy’. Though luckily it does not dwell on this part, and nor is it a tale of an outsider somehow becoming more ‘inside’ than the insiders. The film’s message is more complex than that and is all the better for it.
Sword of God sits in a sweet spot between Dances with Wolves/Avatar and the Game of Thrones series. It is grittier and grimmer than the former two, yet not as much as the latter, while being more believable and compelling than either. It is a finely acted and written film with some great cinematography. Fans of drama, historical or otherwise, will find a fine treat in this film. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives it 4 out of 5 stars.