At the peak of the High Middle Ages, Christendom grew in size and scope like the Heaven-reaching silhouette of its many cathedrals. The Roman Catholic Church ruled the known world, and the only thing that mattered about the rest of it was why God allowed Jerusalem to fall (again) into the hands of Saracens. This is the historic crossroads that Pilgrimage finds itself trekking across, and it is one rife with narrative possibilities.
It is thus a shame that Brendan Muldowney’s picture mostly feels like it’s wandering in circles with its feature-length detour about monks on the road. Albeit those brothers of the cloth have plenty of reasons to be wary of an open landscape as fraught with danger as this one, with the deadliest unseen menace being a palpable sense of boredom.
In the grand tradition of other tales about men traversing the great unknown, Pilgrimage can be best described as as a men (or monks) on a mission yarn. But whereas many of the movies that clearly served as an inspiration tended to highlight fellowships searching for absolution or retribution, this film’s group of five Holy brothers, plus one mute manservant, are on a much more specific march toward salvation. In a sense, they’re aiming to rescue the regal Vatican—or at least its cause.
In the year 1209 when a Cistercian monk named Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber) appears on the shores of Ireland with the feverish aim of convincing a local order of Gaelic-speaking brothers to surrender their Holy relic. According to legend, within a gold and gilded box that these monks hold, the rock that ended the life of an ancient (even by the 13th century standards!) Irish saint stil glows with divine authority. Geraldus wishes to use this relic as a source of righteous power for the Vatican, which is intending to begin another Crusade for Jerusalem. The Irish monks, in contrast, simply wish to obey their Church.
Sent to accompany the rock on its pilgrimage to Rome are Brothers Ciaran (John Lynch), Cathal (Hugh O’Conor), Rua (Rúaidhrí Conroy), and of course young Brother Diarmuld (Tom Holland). Diarmuld is the novice who has never known anything but his abbey, yet in many ways, he’s also the worldliest of the bunch since he values a quiet manservant his brothers simply dub “the Mute” (Jon Bernthal) as an actual human being. Bernthal’s Mute is mostly in the background, but his eyes scream with a defeated sense of despair, and the crucifix tattooed on his back promises a Crusader out for a reason to believe.
And yet, even after meeting the semi-friendly embrace of Raymond de Merville (Richard Armitage) and his Norman knights, who have traveled all the way to this tiny isle in search of glory, the brothers still find themselves unable to escape Ireland. Enemies on all sides, including Gaelic warriors, track their movements and the valuable prize they keep. It is said that only the worthy can touch the rock without being struck by immolation, but plenty of men with violence in their heart are willing to take the chance.
The most commendable aspect of Pilgrimage is the way it tries to root its vision of medieval Ireland with, if not accuracy, a sense of authenticity. The film plays fast and loose with language, yet both the Irish monks and Norman knights use Gaelic and modern French to signify their differences, with the common tongue (presumably intended to be Latin) ringing with a very 21st century-accessible version of English. These little creative choices by Muldowney and writer Jamie Hannigan go a long way to root the movie in its setting.
Nevertheless, even with plenty of sweeping helicopter/drone shots of men walking across a desolate countryside like any band of Tolkien-esque heroes, their world still feels at arm’s length. Last year, Robert Eggers released a very impressive film that blended period piece verisimilitude with genre sensibilities in The Witch. While Pilgrimage is no horror movie, it attempts to make an action-thriller out of its narrative, yet lacks the conviction of faith to believe in itself enough for these period-genre influences to mix. What chance does it have then of proselytizing us?
There are scenes of Gaelic heathens besetting monks with slings, as well as grim moments of torture as another character is given the William Wallace treatment via tools of disembowelment. All of these scenes are meant to be exciting or visceral, but they’re often as flat as the coastlines that the characters walk on. Moments of ambush and sudden violence subsequently land with all the intensity of an action set-piece developed for television in the ‘90s by Rob Tapert.
Also the vague Ark of the Covenant overtones of the monks’ relic never really complement the mournful quiet within which the picture drowns, or the ultimate scathing skepticism Muldowney reserves for his most indoctrinated characters. The performances fare better though. Holland particularly displays a comfort with the language and his character’s growing sense of disillusionment that is slyly impressive for such a young performer. Weber also makes for an enjoyably nasty sanctimonious piece of work. And as usual, Bernthal is completely committed, albeit to such a stock role here that it feels like a waste.
Pilgrimage has some nice elements to be sure, not least of which is the stoic landscape the characters inhabit. But when the audience never once feels as if they are there with them, particularly during a third act beholden to the altar of clichés, there is little risk of the movie winning many converts.
Pilgrimage premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will be released theatrically in the U.S. on Aug. 11.