Forced to travel on a holy pilgrimage from the only home he’s ever known, The Novice (Tom Holland, Spiderman: Homecoming) leaves his Irish Catholic monastery with a few other priests to deliver a relic to Rome for the efforts of the Crusade. Along with the Mute (Jon Bernthal), who is a lay member of the order with a past, and Brother Ciarin (John Lynch), he’s directed by Cistercian Frere Geraldus (Stanley Weber) to join up with the army of the Baron de Melville (Eric Godon). Out of his element, and struggling to see this new world through his eyes of naive faith, the Novice considers the bloody world he finds outside of the monastery.
In a gripping (and graphic) prologue, we see Mathias of Bethlehem stoned by an unbelieving crowd – it’s the rock which delivers the death blow that will become the relic The Novice protects a thousand years later. But just like the violence that leads to Matthias’ death, there is blood and terrible havoc released as the monks travel through enemy lands to deliver the relic. Brendan Muldowney’s vision of that violence beyond the walls of the monastery never wavers, and we see the dangers facing the monks – and the degrees to which they’ll be forced to go to protect the relic (and by default, their faith).
With a blend of English, Irish, Latin, and French dialogue, the film proves to be a higher bit of filmmaking than your average medieval blood bath (Ironclad, Black Death). But in the narrative, the violence is a background for the journey – the action to keep the monks moving forward in protecting, recovering, and transporting their relic – which many of them believe will actually provide protection and victory because of the way in which Matthias died.
This ultimately becomes the dilemma, the thesis, the question: does God actually will one to win over another? Can a rock actually provide the holy talisman which would swing a war? What difference does it make if we believe in a ‘thing’ or idea, versus the actual substance of the thing itself?
Pilgrimage is a dark, troubling film with a few wince-worthy moments, and enough subtitles to make me read (rather than watch) the film. But the end result, with its blend of action and thought-provoking exploration of what faith in the world looks like, captivated and entertained me. In fact, the film gets pretty close to evangelical – even in the midst of the violence: as one monk is cruelly tortured and murdered, his dying words to his interrogator are: “God loves you. He forgives you. I forgive you.” It’s… intense.
But it’s also not cut and dry. Some of the monks see only the delivery of the relic; others see only their own self-preservation. And then there’s Holland’s Novice caught in the middle, with us, the audience.
It’s a fair exploration of faith and doubt, even if you don’t always like where it goes.