★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Two Christian knights find themselves at odds against each other when they try to convert pagans in this chilling, gorgeously shot shocker.
Directed by Bartosz Konapka
A beautiful looking film that deals with the ugliness of humans and age-old questions about religious conflicts, the Polish/Belgian co-production The Mute (2018) is a stunning, gripping work. Director Bartosz Konapka’s film pits two knights against each other in a battle to try to convert members of a pagan tribe to Christianity during the Middle Ages, and as history shows with many such efforts, violence and death are part of the process. The original Polish title of this film, Krew Boga, translates to “God’s blood,” and there is certainly a great deal of the red stuff spilled here.
Willibrord (Krzystof Pieczynski in an engrossing performance that nails his character’s swagger and bravado) and a nameless knight (Karol Bernacki in a superbly poignant turn) 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, loudly using fear and intimidation with his voice, while the other knight tries to win over the people with empathy and understanding before making a chilling decision about using his voice and language. After Willibrord challenges the group’s shaman to a trial by fire, allegiances begin to waver, and the tribespeople must now choose between their traditional ways, the scare tactics of Willibrord, or the unnamed knight who takes on the titular role.
The approach to communication between characters in The Mute and how that 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 this is portrayed by having no subtitles for viewers when they speak that language. We are as lost as the two knights are when it comes 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 not prone to violence, but they are willing to go that route to protect one another. Though covered in mud and performing arcane ceremonies, they are ultimately portrayed as sympathetic innocents.
Jacek Podgórski’s cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, capturing Konapka’s visions perfectly. A sense of dread and eeriness pervades. Dark blues and greys dominate the proceedings, from the claustrophobic, walled village of the pagans to the mud smeared on their faces and bodies. Where there isn’t mud, there seems to be water. There’s almost no escape from sogginess.
The Mute is filled with horrors, brutality, and bloodshed, but is far more of a horror-adjacent film than a flat-out fright flick. Those who enjoy such fare as The Witch (2015), The Wicker Man (1973), and Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (2019), and those interested in dark historical dramas should all find plenty to pique their interests with this film.
The Mute screened at Cinepocalypse Film Fest, which ran June 13–20 in Chicago, Illinois.