“Black Death”: a film about plague, horror, deep thoughts

Movie Review
“Black Death”

Directed by Christopher Smith
U.K/Germany, 2010, 97 mins., Rated R

Like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Black Death is set in Europe during the Dark Ages, with man confronting death and his own mortality. Although it’s not in the same league as the 1957 classic starring Max von Sydow as a benighted knight, Christopher Smith’s movie is an engrossing account of Europe ravaged by the Black Death. It is also a thought provoking and frightening tale (Smith’s first feature, 2005’s aptly named Creep, was a horror flick).

Set in 1348 England, but shot in Germany, the Grim Reaper comes in Black Death not in the form of a cloaked spectral chess player but as bubonic plague sweeping the continent, wiping villages and monasteries out. An elite unit of knights, who are skilled swordsmen and torturers – think Dark Ages Dirty Dozen or Middle Ages Magnificent Seven – led by the formidable Ulric (Sean Bean who, appropriately, co-stars with Robert Vaughn in 2011’s The Magnificent Eleven) are dispatched to a distant plague-free village. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young, fallen monk familiar with the terrain, is recruited to lead the not-so-merry band on their somber mission.

David Warner, who portrayed the madcap Marxist in 1966’s delightful Morgan! (of which Jacob Tierney’s wonderfully droll 2009 comedy The Trotsky is reminiscent) plays an Abbot – minus Costello, as this is definitely not a comedy. Indeed, like those European Medieval Mystery plays, Black Death is a morality tale suffused with religious themes. When Ulric encounters the village spared the plague, he has something quite different in mind than learning from them how the rest of Europe can scientifically be saved from destruction.

Led by the sensuous healer Langiva (Carice van Houten, who starred in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 World War II thriller Black Book), the villagers know the not-so-gallant knights have something up their armored sleeves. Black Death becomes a very philosophical film about sexuality: free love versus original sin. It also questions the nature of religion and the existence of god, just as Bergman’s masterpiece did 54 years ago. The ensuing debate between Christian fundamentalists and pagans is cleverly contemporary, and Dario Poloni’s screenplay is suggestive of the current struggle between religious zealots and atheists.

Some wags have said that today’s nonbelievers, typified by Christopher Hitchens, are as dogmatic and doctrinaire in their discarding and denying of deities as the faithful flock is. Touché! (Although I noticed on a recent 60 Minutes report that Hitchens, who is now battling cancer – not bubonic plague – appears to be giving himself some theological wiggle room. You know – just in case. Call it the “no atheists in the foxhole syndrome.”) In any case, regarding Black Death’s faction fight, your humble scribe says: “A plague upon both of your houses!”

I generally avoid horror movies like the, ahem, plague, but I found this spooky flick and its trip two-thirds of a millennium back in time to long ago and far away to be an absorbing and enthralling voyage. Amen.

Image: Eddie Redmayne in Black Death, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.