Short version: Go see this ASAP (it’s on DVD now).
Black Death is a movie that does everything nearly perfectly, and has moments where it transcends it’s b-horror roots to be quite artistic and thought provoking. I was intrigued by the poster when I saw it mentioned online. James Raggi gave it a thumbs up some time back and I just missed it at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and when I checked it out at IMDB I was even more interested by the fact that Christians, pagans, and atheists all seemed to take offense at it and all seemed to find confirmation for their views in it.
The cast is very strong for the most part (the lead was a little out-of-his league, which maybe was intentional since the character is basically out of his league too). The sets and costumes were great. The historicity was very good. I’m not going to quibble about the account of Crecy given by a character or the German method of witch-burning depicted in a film set in England, or even the explanation given of a misericorde (the film gets it right, but a little incomplete). Some of the dialogue seemed a little too modern but overall I could buy the whole thing. What was good about the film?
–The characters. Pretty much every one had more than one dimension and was well-acted.
–The fights. Not a ton of action but the main fight sequence was great and bloody with a nice range of weapons. There should have been more of these.
–The atmosphere. Mostly shot outdoors, it felt like a medieval Apocalypse Now, with slow stretches punctuated by shocks and action.
–This is a D&D movie. Or at least a LOTFP:Weird Fantasy movie. A band of adventurers confront a mysterious evil. The NPCs and locales creep you out. Dark as hell.
The themes of religion, superstition, zealotry, and intolerance were strong throughout, and it was pretty hard to root for anyone whole-heartedly. Some characters showed incredible grit and determination. Others were pragmatic and clever. Others were loyal and unflinching. All were good in their own eyes and evil in the eyes of others. I think viewers with strong biases are offended because no perspective is really privileged. If you are upset by ambiguity this is probably upsetting. Bigots are going to call it nihilistic trash.
I’d say the film evokes aspects of several superior films, like Flesh+Blood, The last valley, Excalibur, Apocalypse now, The seventh seal, and Virgin Spring. And it evokes some less than superior but watchable films, like The thirteenth warrior, The messenger, Severed ways, and Pathfinder. But it really is its own film — not one of those movies that make me wish I’d seen the original instead; it is an original. It’s far from perfect, but well worth checking out.
I am so going to use a waist-deep marsh and a village on stilts in the middle of it in Telengard.