Monday, June 20, 2016

Before There Was Grayscale, There Was the Black Plague

Is there a better source of horror than the devastating plague that killed almost half of the European population in the 14th century? I sometimes wonder why there aren’t more medieval set genre films that use this event as a springboard. Paranoia, cool beak masks, much potential.

Quick Plot: It’s 1348, and everybody is dirty and gross. The least grossest is, of course, Lena Headey’s Matilda, the lady of a small isolated village awaiting the return of her knight husband from a war with France. When the rest of the soldiers (including her husband’s nephew, Nicholas) return without Lord Walter but with a handsome and valuable hostage named Jacques, Matilda is understandably disappointed. When she meets with the obese and lecherous bishop holding sway over her and her town’s future, she’s understandably grossed out.

Matilda is given ten days to come up with tax payment or else she’ll have to do some very carnal things with a man she despises. Things get much more complicated when the cruel Nicholas bullies Jacques only to end up dead, possibly via plague-related complications. 

At Nicholas’s funeral march, the town steward is struck with some kind of curse, flashing back to witnessing a horrible event while also succumbing to the same plague. Once again, Jacques seems to have been some kind of instigator but only Matilda’s loyal servant Randall seems to notice.

There are plenty more twists and turns in Black Death, but to go too much further starts to a) give some things away and b) get a little laborious. Director Alberto Sciamma moves a little too slowly in unfolding his film’s mystery, making the the film feel far longer than its 115 minute running time. It’s something of a shame, since there’s a very strong concept at the heart of Black Plague.

Little by little, we learn that the village once endorsed a terrible sin twenty years earlier. Is Jacques the literal or figurative child of said sin, and do the townspeople deserve the boil-filled plague they may inherit? It’s a great concept, and just a minor shame that the film isn’t quite tight enough to fully make it work.

High Points
Lena Headey may have been born to wear velvety dresses from centuries ago. It’s also quite nice to see just how different her most famous royal character is from the more romantic and well-meaning Matilda

Much like the similarly titled and themed (and also Game of Thrones actor-filled) Black Death, Black Plague ends on a note that helps to put the entire film in a fascinating perspective

Low Points
There certainly should be an epic quality to The Black Plague, but that doesn’t quite excuse what feels like an interminable running time

So, you might have suspected from the DVD cover that Lena Headey looks a lot like Cersei Lannister in this movie. Well, actually, she doesn’t. She’s not blonde, nor does she ever sit upon an iron throne-ish chair. Clearly someone designing the newer cover art saw an opening and went for it. 

Lessons Learned
Feudal lords and ladies were not well versed in CPR

A real man knows how to pick any lock, particularly one sealing a chastity belt

Not being able to read or write makes a pretty good alibi

The Winning Line
“I wanted my husband and you bring me a monkey.”

If you thought your Mondays were tough, just imagine what they were like in the 14th century

I enjoyed Black Plague, but I tend to enjoy anything that’s set in that time period or that deals with that kind of widespread devastating sickness. The film is ill-paced and too long, but some of the ideas it plays with regarding sin and penance are quite interesting. Don’t expect a Sword of Storms-like romp, but if this is your kind of jam (as it is mine), it’s certainly worth a watch. 

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