Sword of God (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film that does not go out of its way so that viewers will care about its characters in a traditional fashion. It requires only that we observe with a perspicuous eye as two men end up on an island of pagans—one a warrior-priest whose life is defined by Christianity (Krzysztof Pieczynski) while the other a younger man of faith whose moral, ethical, and religious flexibility has allowed him thus far to scrape through most harrowing situations (Karol Bernacki). The former, Willibrord, hopes to convert the locals to Christianity—no matter what the cost. The latter, whose name is not revealed, has other plans. Beauty and horror become one in Bartosz Konopka’s consistently risk-taking experiment. I recommend it most to viewers with a palate for peculiarity; those who tune in for a casual watch will either be baffled or bored. But that’s art: polarity.
Some might claim that the picture is too bleak or grim. But I say that’s colonialism. What I admired about this project is its willingness to embrace the extreme while polishing it just enough so we can admire it in some way. Consider the images shown when we are introduced to the island’s inhabitants early in the picture. We meet them in cave while in the middle of a ritual as they grab mud, shape them, and wear them like masks. Then, as if possessed by animalistic spirits, they plug holes into the mud that’s plastered on their faces using their fingers and eventually peeling the mud off. There are chanting, hollering, and dancing yet there is not a single subtitle that appears to make it clear to us about what is or might be happening. I think the bizarre ritual is equivalent to people going to church and praying—it is only odd to us because we are not familiar with the natives’ culture.
At the same time, I could be completely off in my assessment. But I find that beautiful because possibilities can inspire discussion or debate. The movie goes on like this with great confidence. Something as simple as withholding subtitles from the audience goes a long way in a movie like this. For example, such a choice is a reminder that we are outsiders looking in, that by being on that island, we are not welcome, possibly for good reasons. Notice, too, how within the first minutes, we made to see through the eyes of Willibrord. And when Willibrord lies unconscious on the beach, we take on the perspective of No Name.
What makes this story a horror film is not because of the so-called uncivilized. Yes, they are covered in grime and mud. They do not have traditional homes, or wear ordinary clothing, or offer food that looks delectable. Nearly everything is communal. The film does not show it, but we can surmise that there may not be such a thing as traditional marriage or monogamy. Everyone is constantly touching each other, and I was fascinated by it. Anyone who has an appreciation for culture will recognize that what the locals have is a tight community.
The horror then comes in the form of outsiders who wish to destroy the lives of people simply minding their own business. But to these men, specifically the warrior-priest, the locals must be corrected—that the right way to live, and the only right way to live, is to live as a devout Christian. That intolerance—that lack of desire to learn about and embrace The Other… then being open to teach and be embraced in return—is real-life horror.
And it is happening right this moment. “Sword of God” holds a mirror on what is wrong about our supposedly modern society, as if to make statement that religion’s barbarism has been modified just enough so it comes across as though forcibly converting a community is not an act of rape.