In Cappadocia in 55AD, in what is now known as Turkey, a man was dragged by ropes across sand strewn with broken rocks then thrown down as his assailants picked up those same rocks and stoned him to death under an angry sky. Perhaps not an atypical event in those violent days, but this was not any man whose death would pass forgotten into history, he was Matthias, chosen as apostle to Jesus following the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.
Elevated to sainthood following his martyrdom, in Kilmannán in 1209 there is a monastery dedicated to the memory of Matthias, his holy reliquary entrusted to the safekeeping of the brothers, but when a visitor comes into their midst, Frère Geraldus (The Hollow Crown‘s Stanley Weber) bearing a command from the Pope himself the simple days of early morning prayer are ended.
Claimed to have “the power to separate the faithful from the faithless,” it is believed the holy relic will ensure victory in the upcoming crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the control of heathens who occupy it. With little experience of matters such as war the brothers are reticent to undertake a secret mission across dangerous territory but Geraldus is adamant: “Rome has spoken – there is no debate.”
And so they set out on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by Geraldus, marching in rough cloaks under the rougher weather, among them the novice Brother Diarmuid (Captain America: Civil War‘s Tom Holland), his first time out of the monastery, the dour cynic Brother Cathal (The Young Poisoner’s Handbook‘s Hugh O’Conor), herbalist Brother Ciarán (The Hybrid‘s John Lynch) and the mute (Daredevil‘s Jon Bernthal) who washed up on the shore several summers back and now serves as labourer for the monastery.
Directed by Brendan Muldowney from a script by Jamie Hannigan, this Pilgrimage is predictably far from uneventful, the unswerving piety of Geraldus goading the others with his insufferable superiority as he makes a deal under a burning castle with the Norman warlord Raymond De Merville (The Hobbit‘s Richard Armitage) on the promise of protection from pagan savages dressed in animal skins who roam the land.
An arrangement whose cost Geraldus will not divulge but which compromises his existing promises to the brothers, with neither sufficient faith in their quest nor trust in each other the fractious alliance soon begins to chafe, and what follows escalates to brutality as threats both within and without whittle away the company whose goal becomes simply to survive.
Filmed in Ireland and Belgium under the eye of Muldowney’s regular cinematographer Tom Comerford, the damp and unforgiving land is as much a character as the weary men of the tattered and muddy cloth, while the question of the relic itself, its powers and its provenance, remains suitably ambiguous: Cathal tells stories of a band of Norsemen slain by an angel when they tried to steal it, but unblemished by a lightning strike is it a blessing or a curse they carry? All that is certain is that zealots come in all colours and they can never be trusted in a foxhole.
With its British premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, carried by the affecting performances of all the principals the narrative of Pilgrimage is compelling despite being relatively linear, and bloody, unflinching and brilliant throughout, even were it not likely to be the only Medieval religious action thriller released this year it would still be the best and is an undoubted highlight of the festival.