”SWORD OF GOD” (“THE MUTE”)
Faith, Trust and Survival
Director Bartosz Konapka’s “Sword of God” is a beautiful and grotesque Polish look at faith, trust, and survival of the fittest. We follow the plight of two men, somewhere in the Middle Ages, somewhere in Europe, somewhere where xenophobia is entrenched and, the t treachery of faith runs deep. A determined older Christian is en route to convert pagans, and a young knight, who is empathetic makes an extreme decision.
Two knights are pitted against each other in a battle to try to convert members of a pagan tribe to Christianity and as history shows with many such efforts, violence and death are part of the process. Willibrord (Krzystof Pieczynski and a nameless knight (Karol Bernacki) are sent by their king to bring Christianity to a mountain-dwelling people on an island, with the expectation that those people all be converted and that a church will be erected. Willibrord believes in showing force and strength and uses fear and intimidation with his voice, while the other knight tries to win over the people with empathy and understanding before making a decision about using his voice and language. After Willibrord challenges the group’s shaman to a trial by fire, allegiances begin to fall apart and the tribespeople are forced to choose between their traditional ways, the tactics of Willibrord, or the unnamed knight.
The way communication is conveyed to viewers is intriguing. For much of the film, subtitles are provided only for the two knights, because the pagan people have a language which only they can understand, and for this there are no subtitles for viewers. We are as lost as the two knights in trying to understanding them.
The pagan characters are presented not as ruthless wild savages, but as empathetic souls who sometimes use unsettling sounds and exaggerated movements in their rituals. They are violent and are willing to go that route to protect one another. Even though they are covered in mud and performing arcane ceremonies, they are seen as sympathetic innocents.
Jacek Podgórski’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and totally captures Konapka’s visions. A sense of dread and eeriness pervades the film through the dark blues and greys that dominate the film along with the claustrophobic, walled village of the pagans and the mud smeared on their faces and bodies. Where there isn’t mud, there water and sogginess pervades. “Sword of God” is filled with horrors, brutality, and bloodshed, but this is not a horror film.
The story begins from the point of view of a religious man, surrounded by dead bodies. His ship has crossed a body of water and has now ended up on the shores of an island. He is apparently the only survivor but then a younger man helps him to shore and calls him “bishop”.
The bishop has come to proselytize the island’s residents by any means necessary. We see the locals as a stoic people in simple garments, their faces whitened by artificial means and speak a language that the bishop does not understand. He will make them become his version of Christians by force. A deadline of sorts is involved, since a ruler and his army will be arriving soon, and the bishop must convert the entire island if he is to survive the strong judgment by the ruler. The locals resist, until the bishop performs what they consider to be a miracle and vanquishes their own holy man.
Konopka gives a lot of room for introspection. The bishop is in a hurry and doesn’t time for gentility. His religious convictions don’t run very deep, either, and he never applies the principles behind the scriptures he recites by memory to his own life or actions.
He is the kind of religious leader who gives religion a bad name, yet is probably fairly typical for his times. We watch the film in dread of what will happen to the people, once the bishop kills the spiritual leadership and replaces it with his own harsh policies. This is not an uplifting movie, yet it moves in mysterious ways. It is dark and powerful and must be seen.