Weekly Cinematejka: Pilgrimage

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Welcome to the Weekly Cinematejka, a review roundup of the movies I’m watching each week – when I have time to watch movies, that is – including box office hits, classics I’ve never seen, and other thoughts and tidbits on movies in general.

Feature Review: Pilgrimage

One of the great beauties of this entertainment streaming age is the availability of undiscovered gems lurking in the archives of services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Every once in a while, you’ll find a title after a quick, “best movies on [insert streaming service],” search on Google. Sometimes it’ll come from a few minutes of dedicated browsing. Either way, you’re always likely going to be able to find a hidden gem or two.

The Google search method is how I came across Brendan Muldowney’s 2017 Crusades thriller Pilgrimage. From IMDB: “In 13th century Ireland, a group of monks must escort a sacred relic across an Irish landscape fraught with peril.” The film premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and was given a direct release in August of the same year.

When I first got a look at the cast, I was a little surprised this didn’t get more independent theater run or at least a more high profile streaming gig. It stars Tom Holland (Marvel’s Spiderman), Jon Bernthal (The PunisherThe Walking Dead), and Richard Armitage (HannibalThe Hobbit trilogy), so it’s at least got some moderate star power. I’ve seen movies with lower profiles get bigger streaming releases, and it made me nervous that the film’s quality might be to blame.

However, it doesn’t take long – maybe 30 seconds in – to understand why the movie didn’t get more play. Pilgrimage tackles a troubling time in history without shying away from the frequent abuses of religious power structures… or the gruesome violence that accompanied the Crusades. And the violence can be truly upsetting, sound mixing playing heavily into the film’s healthy fix of gore.

However, it’s Muldowney’s relentless gaze that makes Pilgrimage as effective as it is. It’s not so much a meditation on zealous faith as it is a picture of extreme piousness violently colliding with an unbelieving world. The film doesn’t have anything truly unique to say about the Crusades, but they do serve as an effecting thematic backdrop. There’s a sense of unease among the different clans of people – namely the religious and irreligious – and said conflict doesn’t spare the isolated monks with whom we start the film. Jamie Hannigan’s script doesn’t give much dialogue to some of the main characters, but the distrust they feel for the outside world – or some might say their devout faith in God – leads to some heart-wrenching scenes.

Muldowney’s vision is aided well by its stars, a trio of diverse characters who are all well-developed by writer and actors alike. Holland plays a young, idealistic monk getting his first look at the world outside his community. Armitage plays a French soldier whose less-than-religious motives cause suspicion among the traveling party. Bernthal gets the meatiest part of a mute whose mysterious service to the Gaelic monks is slowly revealed as the plot unravels. I’ve never been a big fan of Bernthal’s, as he usually grunts and growls his way through all his roles. He’s not entirely different here, but he really does an excellent job with the most subtle role I’ve seen him in yet. His eyes do a lot of work in Pilgrimage, and much of the film’s payoff relies heavily on them. Hannigan’s dialogue doesn’t do him any favors, but it’s nothing he can’t overcome with his trademark physicality.

Pilgrimage is a slight project, barely hitting 90 minutes. In reality, it could have been even lighter; the first 20 minutes drag a lot. But as the 45-minute mark nears, it hits its stride as a rich historical thriller full of both aesthetic texture and surprising heart. The mix of violence and religious themes won’t be for everyone, but there’s a lot to take away for those interested in history, faith, and how the two act as dividing lines in our world.

Grade: B

The Rewind

An idea my friend Jesse Slade and I snatched from other film podcasts on Reel Friends, The Rewind is where I take up old classics I haven’t – and sometimes have – seen.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Ever since we got married, my wife has been talking about The Fifth Element like it was a formative childhood experience for her. I’d never seen it, and she often bemoaned the fact. So when she found a $10 copy on a recent visit to Slackers, guess what we ended up taking home and watching that afternoon?

One of the things I did know about Luc Besson’s magnum opus (of sorts) was that he apparently wrote the screenplay in high school. I don’t know if that’s true, but based on how it plays on screen, I wouldn’t be surprised. At one point, Gary Oldman’s bizarrely-accented antagonist receives a phone call from a seemingly evil man named Mr. Shadow… and after that scene, you never hear from or about Mr. Shadow again. It’s pretty safe to assume it’s in reference to the mysterious evil entity looking to destroy the earth, but seriously, how did that make it through the writing room?

But here’s the thing: despite possibly being one of the 10 dumbest movies I’ve seen in my life (shouts to Transformers 2, Suicide Squad, and Scary Movie), I still kind of liked it. There’s a thrilling, B-movie acceptance that’s elevated by the wacky commitment of guys like Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman. Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich turn in admirable performances, despite the lack of help they get in the script. And the fact the special effects aren’t aging very well just contributes to the crazy legend that is this movie.

So in conclusion: The Fifth Element is not necessarily a good movie, and in more ways than not, it’s probably a very bad one. But there’s also a level of joy in it that is lacking from some of the most technically sound films I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s due to the vision of Luc Besson who crafts a winner almost despite himself. The argument, “Movies are supposed to be fun,” almost never holds any weight with me. But in this case? I’ll make an exception, even if it’s just for my wife.

Grade: B-

Special Features

A few notes and thoughts on other things I’ve watched or am currently watching.

  • Another film I watched this week but didn’t dedicate a full review to: the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy, Burn After Reading. It’s some of the funnier writing the Coens have done, but there’s a cynicism to it that didn’t sit well with me. I’m not Fargo‘s biggest fan, but it is a better version of this film, pairing pitch black comedy with a startling dose of innocence. Burn tries the same formula, but with cheap nihilism. It’s disappointing, because it is quite funny.
  • I’m reviewing Wes Anderson’s newest film Isle of Dogs for Cinema Faith in the coming weeks, so be on the lookout for that. The Fantastic Mr. Fox remains my favorite Anderson film, and I’m excited for him to re-enter the stop motion world. His last few films have been increasingly relatable and human, so a film about talking dogs should offer an exciting glimpse into his continued maturation as an auteur.
  • In other Cinema Faith news, I’m currently lining up a piece that I’m very excited about. I don’t want to give it away, but it involves one of my favorite films from the recent True/False Film Festival. Stay tuned…
  • I talked last week about how I’m rewatching Psych on an inconsistent basis. One thing I’ve noticed is holy crap Dulé Hill is so good in this show. I’ve long accepted that Psych is, by no means, an artistic triumph. But Hill’s performance is truly great and terribly underrated. James Today is good as well, and their chemistry kept the show going well after the writing team ran out of top-shelf ideas. But Hill is the real MVP of the show.

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