I finally got around to watching Valhalla Rising the other night and it rocks.
Imagine a 1960s black & white samurai film … it is lyrical and quiet like that, with sudden bursts of carnage. Add homages to Aguirre, the wrath of god, and Apocalypse now (both in terms of themes like war and religion and their hallucinogenic cinematography).
The central character, One Eye, looks a lot like Kirk Douglas’ character in The vikings, but remains enigmatically silent throughout. Is he mute? We never know for sure. Another character says he comes from hell. His occasional sardonic smile also evokes Clint Eastwood. His physical presence in the movie is a bit like Toshiro Mifune in a samurai film — passive, but not torpid; a serpent lolling in the sun but always ready to strike.
The violence in this film is pretty strong, especially at the beginning where One Eyes uses his fists, teeth, a rope, and a rock to kill several other men, and later when another viking is disemboweled. My wife found the sound effects disturbing — although she did not watch the film, she could hear the crunching bone and squishing flesh.
It’s pretty slow going most of the time, so don’t expect an action movie. It is much more like Severed ways than your typical Viking story.
The whole thing probably has no more than 100 lines of dialogue, but combined with the five chapter titles (Wrath, Silent warrior, Men of God, The holy land, Hell, The sacrifice), the movie manages to suggest some deeper meaning. I’m not sure whether the film as whole should be read as “saying” anything in particular so much as asking questions about religion, violence, revenge, and redemption, and man’s place in nature. I suppose a few more viewings might help explain things, as there were many flash-forwards and visions, and what seemed to be obscure but meaningful shots of incidental things and landscapes. The cinematography and framing of images is incredible at times, and it is a beautiful spectacle even if it all “means” nothing.
Maybe One Eye represents Odin, or we should read some kind of parable of a one-eyed man among blind men, or we should try to puzzle out the significance of the crosses, pagan images, and the pile of stones One Eye struggles to build later in the film. Probably the fog and clouds of smoke that appear in key scenes, and the subtext of pagans versus Christians, and the attempted crusade, all fit together with careful interpretation. Surely there is a great term paper for a film class here, or even a thesis…
I found this a lot more entertaining than Severed ways or Pathfinder (two other recent films dealing with displaced Vikings). If the former has too little action and the latter too little artistry for you, this will be a perfect choice.
The title’s precise significance is a little hard for me to riddle out. I think of the Kenneth Anger films Lucifer rising and Scorpio rising (neither of which I’ve seen but I understand both are acid-trippy) — perhaps evoking the brutality of the Vikings is the whole point? Is One Eye taking the others to Valhalla, or trying to get there himself? Does it signify the end of Viking paganism? (The Viking version of Christianity presented in the film is rather “pagan” too.)
This probably the most thought-provoking viking film I’ve seen (I know, dubious distinction…).