SPOILER ALERTS ABOUND! THOU HAST BEEN WARNED!
This past week I watched a film that popped up on my Hulu list of suggestions. The Pilgrimage, starring Spider-Man hero Tom Holland, tells the story of a band of travelers attempting to deliver a holy relic to Rome to aid in the Crusades. Challenges force members of the group—and viewers—to question the very nature of faith, as well as its abuses.
The movie opens with a group of men leading a lone figure out to his execution by stoning in AD 55. After the poor man’s gruesome demise, the scene cuts to a community of Irish monks in the early 1200s. We discover that these men serve as the guardians of an ancient relic. A papal representative named Brother Geraldus (played by French actor Stanley Weber) comes to requisition the sacred object. The monks send a small contingent of brethren from their community to accompany the relic on its journey.
The group consists of Geraldus, his guards, several monks, and a lay brother (a converso) known only as “The Mute” (played magnificently by John Bernthal). Despite objections raised by one of the other monks, the young Diarmuid (played by Holland) accompanies the group even though he’s had virtually no contact with the outside world beyond his cloister.
In time, we discover that the relic is none other than the very stone used to deliver the coup de grace for St. Matthias, the man we saw murdered at the beginning of the film. The story is told that when Matthias was killed, the stone caught fire and incinerated his executioners. The monks believe that its holy power will destroy anyone of insufficient purity who dares to touch it. Consequently, the religious characters in the film treat it with a reverence mocked by the skeptical.
Their journey is interrupted when attacking Norsemen steal the stone and the reliquary in which it’s being transported. During the battle, The Mute quickly dispatches several enemies—including their greatest warrior—making it clear that he’s no mere manservant, but a skilled soldier returned from a previous Crusade. Brother Geraldus seizes upon the opportunity to proclaim that The Mute has proven to be a tool of God himself and that he must lend his talents to the group’s efforts in recapturing the relic. Whether Geraldus really believes this or is merely capitalizing upon the moment is uncertain. We are left to imagine that either is possible.
The person responsible for taking the relic is the treacherous Raymond de Merville (played by Richard Armitage), a local king’s son charged with protecting the group. He’s made nefarious plans of his own, however. He’s made a deal with the Norsemen who stole the relic and decides to hold it hostage for personal gain and security for his family. Fortunately, Father Ciaran (played by John Lynch) secretly threw it from the cart shortly after its capture. It is recovered by the few remaining travelers who now consist of Geraldus, Diarmuid, another monk, and The Mute.
Raymond does his best to recapture the stone, and in doing so, offers a window of clarity into attitudes toward religion. He’s unimpressed by pious men because “anyone can wear the robes of a monk”—and rightly so as church history is filled with hypocrites. He murders Father Ciara to find the location of the missing stone with a torture tool he acquired from a priest in Constantinople, who had used it to get information out of other victims—how many times in church history have authority figures felt that the ends justify the means? When Raymond kills the monk, he dismisses the relic’s importance, saying, “You will die an agonizing death, and for what? Even if we don’t find the relic, another stone will do! Put it in a pretty box, and people will accept it! Even a king, or a pope.” And there we have it—the irreverently honest voice of those who correctly recognize the problem of blind, uncritical faith.
Eventually, the fleeing group stumbles upon a couple of boatmen, who agree to give them passage. Raymond and his men finally catch up to the group in a climactic showdown. An archer kills one boatman and a monk before depleting his arrows. Raymond fatally stabs The Mute, who kills the nobleman and gives Geraldus, Diarmuid, and the other boatman time to flee to deeper waters where they can escape apprehension. In the last tragic moments, we see the bodies of the fallen, with the ever-faithful, doomed Mute taking his last breaths.
Geraldus and Diarmuid argue over the relic. The young monk tries to throw it in the ocean, essentially returning it to God. A horrified Geraldus grabs for the stone. The strap of the bag in which it’s located becomes tangled around his arm, and he falls from the boat into a watery grave.
In the final scene, a helpless Diarmuid looks out over the landscape. He’s beyond the reach of Raymond’s men. The relic is at the bottom of the ocean. The Mute, his friend and protector, is dying. He has seen the ugly face of belief in Geraldus. He’s now virtually alone. In the last words of the film, the boatman asks, “Where to now?”
Was that question meant for Diarmuid or us?
It is worth noting that the most pious figures in the movie seem to fit common Christian stereotypes. One of the monks who defends the relic has what appears to be an irrational, blind faith in the object. Father Ciara dies as a resolute, uncompromising martyr. The youthful and sheltered Diarmuid is the only one who expresses a clear, reliant faith upon God. This trio of the blind believer, the wizened traditionalist, and the inexperienced youngster fit some of the more negative portrayals of Christians in the 21st century West.
The Pilgrimage depicts virtue and villainy as two sides of the same coin. Although Brother Geraldus and Raymond de Merville seem to be light years apart—the former, a dedicated, faithful servant of the Church, the latter a wicked, scheming opportunist—we are left to wonder how different the two men are. Both love power and use religion as a tool to get what they want. The seemingly noble Geraldus offers absolution to protectors who seem to have little inclination toward spiritual matters. He tells Diarmuid that the problem is not people who have lost faith in the church but who have lost their fear of it. He grows increasingly comfortable in intimidating young Diarmuid, mirroring Raymond’s attempts to do the same. Geraldus wants to use the relic to inspire an army of warriors like The Mute, who will wage a jihad-style war to retake Jerusalem and the rest of the world. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—and faith is no guarantee that a person will remain pure once they’ve heard the siren’s song.
The Pilgrimage is a dark journey that causes viewers to think through their faith. What is it, and what does it accomplish? How important is evidence, anyway? And what do you do when something you thought was true has been exposed as a lie? The Pilgrimage does not intend to portray the Christian faith in a flattering light, but it inadvertently succeeds in showing why a pure, thoughtful Christianity is so much better.