Directed by Christopher Smith
For once, it's not really about the journey—it's the getting there that counts. In Black Death, Christopher Smith's medieval road movie, a rogue's gallery of papally sanctioned Glourious Basterds travel through a bubo-scarred hellscape to a village untouched by plague, either to learn their secret cure or to slaughter them for apostasy. It's a bubonic play stripped of Hollywood gloss, a Season of the Witch corrective, torchlit and bathed in soot and smoke. ("If you don't have smoke, you don't have the right atmosphere," the production designer says in the press notes. "Wherever you went in the Middle Ages, it was smoky.") But it's not just an aesthetic antidote to the movies' Middle Ages banality—it's thematically counteractive as well, bitter with God-bashing venom.
On their way to that safe zone—not unlike a dry-land version of Apocalypse Nows trip up the "Nung" River—the strongmen encounter a parade of self-flagellators, a murderous band of marauding thieves and an unruly mob about to burn a witch. (God's Army saves the innocent girl from the fire by slitting her throat—the only merciful option available. Righteous, Black Death ain't.) Nature's violence, made manifest in the pestilence, is matched by that of these human fanatics, both religious and nihilistic. The filmmakers suggest that man's capacity for violence is equal to God's; he is truly made is His image.
But this is all just preparation; Black Death's caustic heresies strike hardest once the pack reaches the suspiciously plague-free village, an eerily benign-seeming hamlet, like an American small town beneath which lurks an obscured evil. Smith here evokes David Lynch, as well as Robin Hardy's original Wicker Man (and, since the village is matriarchal, also Neil LaBute's 2006 remake); his imagery pays tribute to Bergman and Herzog. But, as rich with conspicuous precedence as the movie may be, it's still (almost) as tricky to see where Smith is headed as it was in his time-travel head-spinner Triangle. (Both that film and this one screened at Lincoln Center's Scary Movies series last fall.) Nightmarish and hallucinatory, this vice-twisting narrative draws to a relentlessly demoralizing final act, as wildly violent Christians butt heads with equally brutal pagans. With screenwriter Dario Poloni, Smith posits all religion as hollow savagery, all faith as gullibility, all miracle as legerdemain, all belief as foolish obstinacy. Most of all, Black Death makes a scathing case for atheism: when such chaos reigns, how could any decent deity bear idle witness?
Opens March 11