Quest films are best when they understand that, like in the tales of King Arthur, the journeys they chronicle are often designed to destroy the questers through the very thing they seek. Glory, purity, power—there’s an ironic end to them all. In Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage, when a band of Irish monks is recruited to escort an ancient holy relic across the post-Crusade island occupied by factions whose conquering lust has not yet been sated, we know this group was meant to be tested from the beginning.
The main party is made up of rookie Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), a mute (Jon Bernthal), foreigner Brother Gerladus (Stanley Weber) and veteran Brother Ciaran (John Lynch). They speak to each other in old Gaelic, English and sometimes French, building, because their words have been overwhelmed by their faith, their relationships through physicality. They’ve come together because the monastery at which the brothers and enigmatic mute (who washed ashore years ago, silent on a makeshift boat known for its carriage of repentant sinners) reside was formed to guard this relic.
Somewhere between the complicated piety of Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film, Pilgrimage draws its religious doubt from a cultural and historical well, rather than from the suffering and torture sprung from the clash between the two forces as they vie for superiority. Christianity is dominant here (rather than a subversive, persecuted religion in Silence’s Japan) which alters the typical religious narrative of the personal protection of and struggle with faith, transforming into a broader action epic in a world that, from the characters’ perspectives, depends on them. Meanwhile, Pagan religions—polytheistic myths of nymphs and spirits—flood the screen with supernatural hints while cinematographer Tom Comerford shoots the film with such wide-eyed awe of nature that it’s easy to buy into a mystical world beneath the island’s gray-green moss. Contrasted with this natural aesthetic are devout monks dressed in their light hewn robes, passively resisting the primal calls of war and barbarism.
Early in their cross-country journey, their guard abandons them, leaving them to meet an occupying military unprotected. This army is led by Sir Raymond (Richard Armitage) and his father, both men with a vested militaristic and political interest in mystical relics. Their country and loyalties are left ambiguous, an unimportant detail lost in the powerful lure of God’s favor. Raymond develops from friend to possible enemy to hounding pursuer with a fiery hate burning in his sharp eyes, as he hulks over the locals in his chain mail, spitting condescension with every word.
All the performances match his for intensity. Lynch, playing the elder monk, has an aching, long-suffering delivery in his salted eyes, while Holland’s fresh-faced naiveté provides the perfect counterbalance. Bernthal is a silent human bear, tattooed and far more pacifistic than someone like Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye from Valhalla Rising. Weber plays one of the most interesting religious characters I’ve ever seen develop on screen: He’s petty, but truly seems ready to absolve those that stand against him, a man using God like Raymond uses his king—as a symbol of prestige, a “might makes right” argument, and an ethical imperative to flex their power and purity on everyone. Holy men are not usually this dickish without being villainous or corrupt. Bernthal’s character seems good at his core and prickly on the surface rather than the other way around, which we see as he attempts to take the impressionable young Diarmuid under his wing. He needs faith and fear simultaneously. He encourages violence. He’s a man of complex loyalty to the church.
Without guards, the monks’ journey becomes progressively more dangerous. A heated confrontation between Diarmuid and Sir Raymond in thick woods incorporates the dreadful temptation and threat of a Frodo vs. Boromir struggle into the film in more ways than its claustrophobic wooded staging—a conflict between a true believer and an imperfect doubter over something that could save or doom them all.
Combat, when it finally bursts from the brush, is occasionally hard to follow but has moments of clarity in its close-up brutality by using the gore of a slasher movie with the historical specifics of a period piece (at least, when it comes to weaponry). When an arm is chopped with an axe, it’s not a slash and then it’s over. The arm must succumb to repeated hacking, primal bashing used by both locals and the “civilized” invaders. Bernthal shines here, a John Wick who’s from the Middle Ages and not middle-aged, going into a berserking bloodrage that puts his intimidating frame to good use. After this conflict, the party must decide how to continue on through the danger. How much trust do they put in God when He clearly has no respect for their lives?
The film understands the importance of appearances and loyalties in a person’s life. These commitments—either to popes, kings, or gods—are built on faith and risk. Every character in the film seems to put all their eggs in one of these baskets, hoping for a brighter tomorrow and a right way of life. The film’s foggy swamps and moral haze help emphasize both the trials of whole-hearted dedication and the world of possibility lying just beyond the blur’s edge. The film’s quest eventually absorbs, then loses, the kind of divine intervention that answers exactly what characters have asked without feeling sappy or campy, but truly mystical. The moment, the split second of divinity, between its appearance and removal is the moment the film was built for: a split second of utter belief.
Director: Brendan Muldowney
Writers: Jamie Hannigan
Starring: Tom Holland, Jon Bernthal, Richard Armitage
Release Date: March 27, 2017
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.