THE MUTE

★★★★

A VIOLENT LOOK AT FAITH AND RELIGION

FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA REVIEW
By Jake Watt
29th February 2020

In the early Middle Ages, a veteran knight, Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski), washes up on a remote beach on an island, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. He is found by Bezimienny/Unnamed (Karol Bernacki), the young man he had been tasked with pursuing. Despite the differences in their views and perspectives on religion, the two men become uneasy allies.

When they discover a small pagan settlement deep within the mountains, they make it their mission to baptise it - a conversion to Christianity is the only way to save its inhabitants from extermination at the swords of the rescue party on its way to retrieve Willibrord. While the two men speak in subtitled Polish, the pagan tribe speak their own unique language - there are no subtitles - which leaves much to the imagination as to what is being discussed exactly. Facial expressions and changes in tone and body language convey everything you need to know about what is said.

The protagonists' mission is resisted by the tribe's priest and the village leader Geowold (Jacek Koman), but Willibrord uses force to push his argument. He confronts the village shaman directly during one of the tribe's sacred ceremonies, challenging the validity of the pagan's god, Perun, through a trial by fire. Bezimienny disagrees with these tactics. After a period of self-reflection (and self-mutilation), he looks to spread his message peacefully and makes an ally in Prahwe (Wiktoria Gorodecka), Geowold's daughter. Love comes into opposition of hatred and the film lives up to its Polish title 'Krew Boga', which roughly translates to "God's Blood".

'THE MUTE' TRAILER

Bartosz Konopka's 'The Mute' eschews all but the most minimal requirements of character and plot. You won't find any ghosts, demons, or pagan monsters here - the primitive tribe aren't cannibals of the cave-dwelling 'The 13th Warrior' variety. What you will find are themes like the struggle for redemption, the contradictions of faith, and the idea that the bigger picture will always smother the innocent.

It's easy to compare Konopka's film to 'Valhalla Rising', the acid-tinged Viking odyssey from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, but it actually bears more similarity to 'The Mission', Roland Joffe's under-appreciated tale of a priest, a warrior and a tribe striving to support a mission in the face of political upheaval. Both films optimistically contest that the true Church actually resides in the individual priest or missionary, rather than the destructive bureaucratic bodies of the Papacy. Willibrord sees the death of certain members of the tribe as sacrificial to God's will and asks God to let them into his kingdom, while his counterpart feels salvation is for all mankind.

The film eschews all but the most minimal requirements of character and plot. You won't find any ghosts, demons, or pagan monsters here - the primitive tribe aren't cannibals of the cave-dwelling 'The 13th Warrior' variety.

'The Mute' is hauntingly photographed on beaches and craggy hills, the grey and dark blue hues reflecting a sombre tone. Cinematographer Jacek Podgórski opts for an overcast quality, caking everything in mud, and is aided by impeccable set design by Marek Warszewski and Łukasz Trzciński. Everything has a damp, sickly look to it - pestilence is in the air. The film is like a sustained, barbaric grunt, leading terrible men through a condemned landscape of their own making. Yet it's a beautiful head trip, too, like a John Milius film reduced to its pure, masculine essence and shot through one of Alejandro Jodorowsky's lens filters. The sequence in the caves, in particular, is a vivid existential nightmare unto itself, as the two knights confront the tribe during a ceremony that involves clay masks which strip them of their humanity. Later, Bezimienny finds himself absorbed into the tribe, sleeping amongst a pile of dirt-painted bodies.

Atmospheric, languid and somewhat structureless, 'The Mute' is a magnificently filmed and subtly political view of the conflict between church and state, good and evil, God and the various devils which may emerge in the psyche of men.

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