In the Dark Ages, every day must have been a horror movie, every breath a taste of the Apocalypse.
Looking back, the only ways to survive the pestilence, lawlessness, hardship and privation had to be myopia — only thinking about that next meal — and faith, with a narrow perspective all its own.
Polish filmmaker Bartosz Konopka keeps his camera tight on the people, primitive settings, rituals and strife of “Sword of God,” shown in Poland as “Krew Boga (The Mute).” This is a world of primal struggle, fur, unworked wood, blood and mud. And Konopka baptizes the viewer in it and delivers something wholly credible and holy horrific, a grim tale of survival and “civilization” from an era when the two weren’t necessarily compatible.
It’s“Black Robe” set on the Baltic Sea, where we’re tumbled into a small boat with only two survivors staggering ashore on a remote island.
The warrior priest (Krzysztof Pieczynski) has his sword, his crucifix and his mission. Convert the locals before his king arrives, so that he has “a Christian prince” capable of “human speech” (Polish) to parlay with.
Without that, summary slaughter is his brand of diplomacy.
The other man (Karol Bernacki) has a crucifix as well. But he’s more dubious about the mission, especially after they’re confronted with the locals — chalk-faced pagans in fur, with queer rituals and rites, bows, arrows and clubs for weapons and speech that is but gibberish to the visiting Poles.
The gibberish sounds Germanic, a sly Polish joke slipped in about their historic tormentors.
“Blessed are those who believe without understanding,” the priest intones (in Polish, with English subtitles). We experience these “savages” the way those two men do. Their words are not translated, their motives questionable.
Perhaps the fact that the first shot they take at the priest is caught in his wooden cross, and not just chest, impresses them. There has to be a reason they don’t dispatch these two the same way they did in the priests who came before.
“Apparently, your god did not bless them,” the pagan chief (Jacek Koman), who speaks Polish, cracks. He was shipwrecked here and knows the world that produced this sword-wielding man of the cloth. The priest’s threats of “doom” (the king) on its way don’t sway him.
“My people will tire of you.”
The priest is insistent, short-tempered and hell-bent on getting a church built and converts in it before his master, the king, arrives. The priest’s companion has more compassion and understanding, even after he is seized and his mouth is sewn shut.
The script allows for confrontations and debates, conversions, bonfires and heretic burnings. But much of the dialogue is interior monologue, prayers of confession and questioning.
“Should I not hate those who hate you, oh Lord?”
“Sword of God” is a minimalist tale, without a lot of story and only a few shocking instances of violence that don’t require translation or deciphering. This is “First Contact” as it played out in many primitive places over the course of many centuries.
The pagans aren’t explained any more than their speech is translated. The priest has only his faith, his instincts and his sword to rely upon.
The locals might grouse and menace, but history tells us the men with steel blades always had the advantage, with or without a crucifix.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, graphic violence
Hi: Krzysztof Pieczynski, Karol Bernacki, Wiktoria Gorodecka and Jacek Koman.
Credits: Directed by Bartosz Konopka , script by Bartosz Konopka, Przemyslaw Nowakowski and Anna Wydra A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:43