Take the color palette of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising,” add a voiceover spoken in an undertone characteristic of Terrence Malick, and top it off with the excessive grandeur of John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” and you have arrived at Polish filmmaker Bartosz Konopka’s “Sword of God.”
The historical epic takes place during the early Middle Ages as a bishop (Krzysztof Pieczynski) and a mute (Karol Bernacki) become shipwrecked on a small island where they attempt to convert the local natives to Christianity. Hatred and love walk side by side in this visually stunning film.
Armed with a Bible, a crucifix and a sword, a bishop named Willibrord (Pieczynski) becomes shipwrecked on a small island where he’s saved by another shipwrecked man (Bernacki) known only as “the mute.” The holy man-warrior has been sent by his king (Jan Bijvoet from “Embrace of the Serpent”) to go out and convert the natives to Christianity or they will be wiped out.
The bishop enlists the help of the mute to carry out his mission, and so like Willard stepping off the boat in “Apocalypse Now,” the bishop, armed with a large crucifix, heads into the jungle, the mute in tow, where they confront a tribe covered in white clay and armed with bows, arrows and other primitive weapons.
Konopka doesn’t give the audience a specific date, all we know is that the story happens during the Dark Ages, and the location of the remote island is also up for speculation. By doing this, the director gives the audience the perspective of the bishop and the mute as they charter unknown territory.
To heighten the experience, the men and the natives are not able to communicate via language. English subtitles are used when the Polish bishop speaks, but the natives speak in a pagan language based on a dead Slavic language, and there are no subtitles. Like the bishop and the mute, the audience must interpret what the natives are saying by studying their facial expressions and gestures.
Cinematographer Jacek Podgórski does a superb job of illuminating the dark-toned film using a blueish tint to exude a horror atmosphere, it provides a nice contrast to the natives covered in white clay.
There is a fantasy overtone as images imply the supernatural and while the film isn’t heavy on sorcery, like Boorman’s “Excalibur,” it should appeal to fans of “Game of Thrones.”
A power struggle ensues as the two missionaries attempt to embed themselves with the natives who are guided by an antagonistic shaman. Division also takes place between the bishop and the mute who doesn’t agree with Willibrord’s methods.
Written by Konopka, Przemyslaw Nowakowski and Anna Wydra, “Sword of God” is filled with love, hatred and intense scenes of violence in the name of religion. Pieczynski and Bernacki as the missionaries deliver solid performances (the two resemble a team made up of Donald Pleasence and Paul Bettany) while Wiktoria Gorodecka as Prahwe, a female leader in the tribe, gives the men a run for their money in a smaller but pivotal role. It’s an unforgettable and essential piece of cinema.