Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., is a priest of the Holy Cross order, graduated from (and taught at) Notre Dame University, and attended USC Film School — and he’s a new staff member at Family Theater Productions in Hollywood (here’s his IMDB page).
He also writes a mean move review, this time of the new film “Pilgrimage,” which came out Aug. 11 in limited release. It stars Tom Holland and Jon Bernthal in the story of early 13th-century monks transporting a holy relic to Rome and meeting stiff opposition from many sources.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
A Frankish crusader utters this hackneyed line better suited for a television police procedural as he dispatches an Irish monk in Brendan Muldowney’s “Pilgrimage,” I felt this line worked, well, however, when applied to both the technical filmmaking and the religious themes.
As a piece of filmmaking, the movie lands with a film school “thud.” By film school, I mean the director can’t help but follow most student clichés. Several shots of walking feet are somehow supposed to convey the arduous nature of the group’s travels. I remember this type of footage parodied in a montage for a graduate film school award’s ceremony. The message to us budding filmmakers from the professors was made abundantly clear: when attempting to show a character’s emotions — show their faces, not their feet
A de-saturated color scheme, also a student preference, drains the Emerald Isle of well, the color emerald (especially considering the film was actually shot in Ireland). The score follows the character’s almost every move, punctuating the most emotional moments with overweening musical notes to the viewer’s vexation. The plot is driven primarily through clunky exposition. I always find it amateurish when
characters fill in the details of facts that would already be known to each other, a device to provide clarity to the audience (although boredom is the actual result).
The pedestrian nature of the filmmaking was enough to take me out of the story, that I did not care so much about how the film addressed faith in general and Catholicism in particular. I can say the themes of the movie suffered from the director’s imposition of what he wanted to be the truth as opposed to what was actually the truth of medieval Catholicism.
The premise of the film posits a Cistercian monk tasked by Rome to recover the relic of an apostle that will hopefully provide supernatural powers to fend off Muslim forces. Neither during the medieval period nor in its current teaching, has the Church related to relics in such fashion. A part of the actual saint or something they touched merely remind the believer of the holiness the saint achieved this side of Heaven and encourages them on a similar path of sanctity. The relic driving the premise of the film then would not create supernatural violence, regardless of the director’s likely influences of watching the “National Treasure” movies.
Thematically, the film shows its flaws as well. The opening titles state the Crusades were launched “on faith” alone. A fair enough assessment for the first crusade, perhaps. The later events of the film follow the unfortunate sack of Constantinople in 1204. A watershed moment in Crusader history signifying European’s motivations is turned to the secular rewards of riches.
(Ed.: To learn more about the real motivations of the Crusades — starting with violent Muslim aggression into areas that had been Christian for centuries — click here.)
“Faith alone” is also a notion that seemingly guides every individual action, especially those of the Cistercian monk. A telling scene, indicative of many that undermine the film’s intention, takes place when the four surviving monks hatch a plan to steal the relic. The Cistercian states the group must not stop to free their fellow monk, as he would only slow them down in their absconding with the relic. Despite his claim that “God told him to plot such course of action,” the strategy is nonetheless a very rational one: sacrifice one monk for the gain of one relic.
The scene reminded me of a little known story about St. Joan of Arc. Despite her admirable piety, she remained a very practical lady, employing the use of gunpowder during the 100 Years War for the first time in military history. It’s often then, the wedding of faith and reason and more so, minding the small things of faith that lead to the minding of the small things of reason that form the actual truth, not the dichotomy of the two that the director suggests. To Catholics, faith and reason are not enemies but allies and necessary partners.
Indeed, “it didn’t have to be this way.” And indeed, it never was.
To see what secular reviewers thought of the movie, check out this post.
Image: Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment, Father Vince Kuna