Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Two Spiritual Pathways: Black Death


"The Year of Our Lord, 1348. The fumes of the dead hung in the air like poison," so opens Christopher Smiths's 2010 release of Black Death which seemed to instantly go to DVD (and on Netflix Instant Play this month) but there are several good reasons to watch the film: it's one in a growing genre of disease films including Contagion (please see my post Contagion: Bats and Pigs), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (there is a virus being spread that a doctor caught from a lab monkey experiment) and disease is even in The Help (please see my post The Help: Of Chocolate Pies), so Black Death, about the Bubonic Plague spreading throughout Europe starting in 1348, is a timely piece; the question is why are disease films trending right now? I think the most straight-forward answer lies in the options presented by Black Death: a young novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) and a knight working for a bishop rooting out heresy, Ulric (Sean Bean). Osmund and Ulric are exact opposites of each other in terms of spiritual advancement and how they respond to the events presented in the film.
Repent. Black Death film poster 2010.
What is so different about Black Death, is it doesn't say that the ravages of the plague are a punishment from God for breaking His Commandments, rather, the plague is devilry and the result of witchcraft. This is the first premise of the film which ensures us of a very sophisticated screenwriter, Dario Poloni, and he doesn't disappoint us with inconsistent theology or a watered-down Christianity, or watered-down Crusaders, either. What we see in Black Death is a rare view of the state of the soul, with the Bubonic plague a sign of the symptoms of sin. (It does not, nor do I, suggest that everyone who died of the Bubonic plague, or even all those in the film are in a state of sin, however, writer Poloni wants to draw our attention to the gross reality and death-state sin produces, and the Bubonic plague is an apt vehicle for that).
The sin is its own punishment.
Penitents making a pilgrimage in Black Death.
In the opening of the film the young novice Osmund is in solitary confinement: the plague has spread to his monastery and he is suspected of having contracted the disease.  We see him lying on a cot, and, with our 21st century knowledge, when we see a rat roaming nearby on the floor, we know Osmund's in a dangerous position because a flee on the rat can easily infect him. Symbolically, this is exactly what happens.
Osmund, on the right side, was late in joining the gathering; he's not obedient.
In solitary, Osmund inspects himself and does not find signs of the plague on him; he tells the brother in charge of keeping him quarantined that "I have no sign" of the plague. Osmund, however, is not healthy in the spiritual sense of the word and we next see him stealing food from the monastery; he then goes to Averill (Kimberly Nixon) with whom he is in love. He is in a state of mortal sin, and this has worked to separate him from the Face of God, because later, when God answers Osmund's prayer, Osmund doesn't accept the answer.
Dead bodies wrapped in sheets, prepared for burial due to death of plague.
Osmund gives the stolen food to Averill and tells her to leave because her life is in danger. She tells him that he has already broken his vows to God, but Osmund refuses to go with her, not wanting to leave the monastery. She tells him to meet her at the Martyr's Cross, that she will wait there for him in a certain spot, then she leaves. Osmund prays to God that God will show him His Holy Will. As many of us know from personal experience, that's not a good enough prayer; first you pray to know God's Will and then you pray for the Grace to follow it, because rarely is God's Will also our own; at least, in the case of Osmund, the two are in conflict. Remember, when Osmund told the brother to let him out of quarantine, that he had no sign of the plague, now he wants a sign from God, and God will show Osmund that Osmund has something worse than the plague.  Symbolically, Averill is the flee on the rat bringing the disease to Osmund, because he's now conflicted and torn about what to do.
Averill and Osmund saying goodbye before she leaves.
After he has prayed for a sign about what to do, Ulric appears and requests a guide to a certain village where there is no sign of plague; knowing it's close to the Martyr's Cross, Osmund jumps at the opportunity, not because he can use his knowledge to lead Ulric, but because he wants to meet up with Averill.
The name "Ulric" means "powerful," but in what way?
The first important event of the trip is in a village they pass. They hear commotion and Osmund stops the villagers from burning the suspected witch (Marianne Graffam) and, upset with Osmund for interfering with the proceedings, Ulric unties the woman who protests that she was just giving a spiritual blessing to the village’s well of drinking water; the villagers claim that after her “blessing” people started dying and that she had actually poisoned the well. Ulric takes the woman to the side, stabs her, she dies and they leave. Ulric explains to Osmund that she was already a dead woman.
The "witch" bound to the wood of the ladder where she was going to be burned.
There are two important facets about this scene: first, it displays Ulric’s ability to discern and secondly, it foreshadows Osmund’s own stabbing of “Averill.” First, Ulric knows this woman is a witch: you can’t give something unless you have received it, in this case, a blessing; the only way for her to have received a blessing was through her being ordained as a deacon or a priest, which is impossible, so she did not have a blessing to bestow upon the well unless it was, as Ulric suspects, a curse she was uttering from devilry.
The group of soldiers traveling with Ulric and Osmund.
So why does Ulric stab her?
To show that he is powerful enough to do so.
The villagers would have burned her for fear of their own lives, but Ulric kills her for the glory of God. Ulric, further, is right: she is all ready dead, dead in sin, and that is important for the viewer to discern because this scene foreshadows the Necromancer in the village and whether or not she can be trusted to tell Osmund the truth about Averill. The name "Ulric" means "powerful," and now we know in what way he is powerful: spiritual discernment. He is going to this village "to see for himself" how they avoid the plague, and "seeing" is the gift of discernment. Being able to distinguish between what is good and evil is a gift, one which Osmund doesn't have.
Osmund giving absolution to a soldier with the plague.
The next incident to occur is that one of the men traveling with them has the plague. All are afraid of getting the illness, but Osmund tells the man he will hear his confession and offer him absolution.This incident illustrates how Osmund couldn't have known the woman in the village was a witch, because Osmund doesn't have the power to provide absolution to this man as the woman didn't have the power to offer a spiritual blessing over the water. As a novice, Osmund has taken vows (but hasn't made his profession, so he can still leave the monastery to be with Averill, however, he's not being honest with the monastery that he's in love with her, or they would have asked him to leave), but Osmund is not a priest who has been invested with the power of absolution of sins. Osmund has committed a very, very grave sin.
Mold the executioner who knows Osmund has a secret and who bravely dies for God.
The next incident to occur is that Mold (Johnny Harris) the executioner, urinates while Osmund is praying, and reveals to Osmund that he knows Osmund has a secret. Encouraging Osmund to tell him, because everyone tells the executioner what he wants to know, Osmund buries the secret even deeper, setting up for the (symbolism) of the next couple of scenes, and, importantly, tying the "keeping of a secret" to torture.
Osmund and Ulric, the image of a boy and a man of God.
The group camps for the night and in the early morning, Osmund secretly leaves to go to Martyr's Cross to meet Averill (this is the first time he leaves the group and puts them in danger, the second time is in the village; his "leaving the group" echos his leaving the monastery and the danger he himself is in of losing his soul). At Martyr's Cross, he finds a cloak worn by Averill, stained with blood and a hole from a stab wound.
At Martyr's Cross, deep in the forest, where God answers Osmund's prayer for a sign.
 This is "Martyr's Cross," literally. Osmund is to die to the world in this spot when he finds that Averill is dead. This Cross (pictured above) is the sign God provides to Osmund to show Osmund the way God Wills for him to go, but the next sequences shows us Osmund's weakness and inability to persevere. At the same time, a group of bandits chases him back to the camp and fight with Ulric and the rest of the group. Not being armed, Osmund stands in the entry of the cave where they camped, but one of the bandits begins chasing him.
Another group shot, Ivo is the first on the left side.
This is symbolically the most important part of the film: the bandits have such a biblical feel to them (think of the messengers who tell Job of the Old Testament that a group of bandits swept down upon them and killed them all). The bandits symbolize demons, and the reason we can make this connection is because one of them chases Osmund into a cave, which symbolizes Osmund "going into himself" and his life being threatened because Averill's death has created conflict between Osmund and God. The bandit stabs Osmund in the side,  when one of the soldiers, Ivo (Tygo Gernandt), who had his tongue cut out after being tortured for refusing to speak, comes to Osmund's aid and kills the bandit, but the bandit also stabs Ivo under his mouth, ramming the knife blade through his mouth. Ivo, here, symbolizes that part of Osmund who kept his secret about loving Averill and being torn and confused about what to do regarding the situation; this will become more literal later, but when Ulric questions Osmund, the secret comes out and Mold was right.
The remaining soldiers have entered the enchanted village and Ulric isn't happy.
And now they enter the village of the necromancers (someone who raises the dead). A beautiful woman, Langiva (Carice van Houten), talks to Ulric and immediately, Ulric knows Langiva is the power in the village just as Langiva immediately knows that Osmund is "in mourning" for Averill. She puts a mixture of herbs on his stab wound which instantly takes away the pain. As Langiva makes Osmund sympathize with her, Ulric's keen sense of discernment helps him to quickly take stock of the village that is more than it appears to be.
Langiva's power to discern is as strong as Ulric's and she discerns Osmund's weakness. Note that she wears "red." It symbolizes that she knows the appetites--sex, wealth, power, whatever we desire--and who desires what.
Langiva's "curing" abilities can now be discussed regarding the doctors first seen around Osmund's monastery. The beak doctor costume, I would like to suggest, invokes the Holy Spirit: the men in the film walking around with a beak on their faces and covered in long robes, burying the dead, suggests the work of the Holy Spirit because of the reference to a bird (for a more detailed explanation, see "Birds" in my post How To Eat Art). If I am correct, this makes a nice opposition to the other "doctor," Langiva, who appears to heal and keep the plague away from the village by her magic and personal power, but brings death to the soul, whereas the Holy Spirit allows us to "suffer all kinds of infirmities" to save our souls.  
The "beak doctor" costume during the time of the plague. The "beak" of the costume had a type of respirator so the doctor could breathe clean air (they thought the plague was contracted through the air) and there was a place where they stored fresh-smelling herbs. The glass eyes within the mask allowed them to see. The overall outfit made of waxed leather and filled with flowers and fresh herbs was meant to resemble a soldier's armor. The cane he holds allows him to examine patients without touching them, or remove clothing without touching them. The wide brim hat indicates he's a doctor.
The soldiers are put in the abandoned church, and one of the girls who comes to see to their needs wears a necklace which Ulric immediately recognizes. This acts as another example of Ulric's ability to "see" and discern, because the necklace was worn by soldiers from the first group that came to investigate for the bishop (it was like a seal, giving them authority). The inside of the church hasn't been used in a long time (possibly years) and Ulric knows--even as his own men are telling him that there is no evil in the village and they just haven't been touched by the plague, that it's a peaceful place--Ulric knows by what he sees and doesn't see the state of the people's souls and how they got that way.
Walking through the quiet village is like walking into a dead soul.
And Langiva knows that Ulric knows.
That night, the village has a dinner for the group and (no one from the village saying Grace) Ulric stands and says Grace, prompting Langiva to mock him for it. She calls Osmund away from the dinner even as the girls of the village are trying to tempt the soldiers, and the ones who fall for their temptations are also the ones who fall the next day; the ones who keep their eyes on moral behavior, are the ones who stand firm for Christ the next day. But Langiva has a gift for Osmund, and she "leads him away from the others" as they eat and drink poison, so Langiva can give Osmund poison for his soul.
Langiva lets Osmund see her as she really is, and he still can't "see."Langiva looks like Death in this instant, however, it is Ulric who has been given the power of Death by virtue of his martyrdom.
Osmund sees a kind of "Black Mass" and, who is that buried beneath the brush? Averill. Averill is raised from the dead by Langiva (as the soldiers are falling over from the poison).So Langiva reveals herself to be the necromancer Ulric searches for; but is she the one who raises Averill from the dead? Osmund raises Averill from the grave, so Osmund is the real necromancer. How often in our lives, does God in His Mercy, free us from a sin and we in our weak human nature, bring that sin back to life within us (so that we die to Grace)? Osmund has not let go of Averill, and Langiva knows she can catch Osmund with that bait.
Ulric held captive by the village just before his martyrdom.
The village captures all the soldiers and puts them in a pen of water with their hands tied; the beams represent the wood of the Cross and the Water the Baptismal Grace each of them has in this moment. Each are given the choice of renouncing Christ eternally (and the words of the oath they are to take are so horrific I can't even bear to write them!). But Mold the executioner is crucified for not giving in, but Swire (Emum Elliot) says he will renounce God (he had gone on the expedition only for money anyway). Langiva tells him that after renouncing God, he will be escorted out of the village and free to go. So he takes this terrible oath and then is lead outside of the village... and hung. The villagers put a mask over his head (losing God Swire has lost his own identity) and renouncing God to save his life has made him a Judas, a betrayer whom no one wants to have around. Next, Langiva tells Osmund to go and see Averill, and he goes to her, but Osmund (which means "protected by God") is protected. He realizes that this is "not really Averill" and that she is with God and Osmund won't renounce his faith. Harkening back to the scene where Ulric stabbed the witch, Osmund now stabs Averill.
Ulric and Osmund both see the same thing but Osmund doesn't see at all.
Ulric, bound and tied between horses--about to be drawn and quartered--shows Osmund that he has the plague and has brought it with him to the village and none of them can escape. Ulric's strength allows him to be the bearer of God's wrath. Ulric is torn by the horses--a sign that he is spiritually unified and the strength of his faith can bear the pains of martyrdom, but then Langiva "leads" Osmund into the swamp. She tells Osmund that she hadn't really brought Averill back from the dead because she never died and that it was Osmund who killed her. Given that Langiva was crucifying the men--and all the other soldiers who came before them--and getting them to renounce God eternally, can Langiva really be considered a reliable narrator? Why on earth should Osmund believe her? Langiva tells Osmund a lie and Osmund, who cannot discern, believes her, and we know that Langiva wins this battle because of what happens to Osmund.
Osmund returns to the monastery in a wagon.
You know a tree by the fruit it bears, Christ tells us, and the evil which grows within Osmund assures us that Langiva fed him lies. Leaving the monastery, Osmund spends the rest of his life looking for Langiva, and he sees her in every woman he encounters, trying to make her confess to killing Averill and all her crimes of witchcraft. As Ulric was torn apart by the horses, Osmund is torn apart by Langiva because he is weak where Ulric was powerful. Whereas many benefited from Ulric's ability to discern, many suffer from Osmund's inability to discern.
Because Osmund could not accurately see God, he now sees the devil everywhere in the form of Langiva.
In the beginning, Osmund was in solitary confinement and said that he showed no signs of the disease, but the disease he had within his soul were far worse than the boils of the plague. The filth of mortal sin upon Osmund was released into the world. We rarely think of holy men as warriors like Ulric, but anyone deeply rooted in the spiritual life has fought countless battles to win the gifts of the Spirit such as discernment and they use them for the greatest good. Black Death doesn't take us back to "The Year of Our Lord, 1348," but shows us how "the fumes of the dead hang like poison in the air" today, illustrating in greater wisdom the lessons of films such as Contagion which want to draw our attention to our own sins and how sin spreads like disease, and we must cure ourselves of our sins first, before we can tend to the sins of others.