Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Season of the Witch

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Season of the Witch is a period piece written by Brahi F. Schut and directed by Dominic Sena set during the latter part of the Crusader era and at the beginning of the spread of the bubonic plague. The story is set around the friendship of two crusader knights played by Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman who at the beginning of the movie love their jobs of killing the enemy at least as much as the Spartans did in the movie 300. However, after 10 years of killing Saracens (Muslims), and often enough, the Saracens’ (Muslims’) women and children, the two had enough. So they desert and head for home. It is then that they run into European cities devastated by the plague.

It is often hard for us to imagine the horror and desperation that the great plague caused the people of Europe. The people were horror stricken and had no idea what caused it or how it spread. Even today, “ancient alien theorists” muse over reports of the time of “demons” appearing at the outskirts of towns and villages and spreading the plague through “mists.” Today we understand that the plague was spread by bacteria carried in the intestines of fleas carried about by rats. It took years for the people of Europe and the rest of the world to figure that out. In the meantime, all kinds of scapegoats were blamed, murdered and/or destroyed in reprisal. Jews were murdered for simply not “fitting in” (and therefore somehow causing the plague). Similarly, “uppity” women (or women who, again, somehow did not fit in or tragically annoyed the wrong/vindictive person/people) were denounced and burnt as witches. The Church even largely destroyed its own churches. The iconoclast controversy which had raged and been settled by Church Council some centuries earlier resurfaced and panicky Church officials literally whitewashed and destroyed a whole era of religious art across Europe out of fear that the images of Jesus, the Holy Family, Angels and Saints were being taken as “idolatry” by a vengeful God punishing the world for its multitude of sins. The panic was near total.

Hence how would one approach making a movie set in this era and why make it at all when it could offend so many people – Muslims, Jews, Feminists, even the Catholic Church itself which has apologized and sought to make amends countless times for these and other sins certainly made often with fervor but also out of ignorance?

Well, the makers of the movie appeared to try to simply put the movie’s characters into the world of that time have them live as closely as possible according to the assumptions that they would have made at the time and invite the audience to join with them. Hence, I do think that the movie does quite successfully allow the audience to see the world of that time from through the eyes of two crusading knights.

If I were Jewish still reeling from the Holocaust that hopefully was the last chapter of an _awful_ two millenia long history of Christian persecution of the Jews, or a Feminist simply _appalled_ by the Medieval trial and burning of _apparently_ "problematic" women as witches, would I want to do this? Probably not. But the exercise is not without some value. And one is invited to enter into a pre-scientific world where much of the technology that exists today was simply unimaginable.

Hence through The Season of the Witch, one gets to appreciate some of the terrors that all people felt back then. When the two returning knights are given the task of providing escort for a priest and assistant taking woman accused of witchcraft (the woman played quite well by Claire Foy) to a distant monastery for trial, they pass through a dark wood, where the party gets attacked by wolves. Today, such a fight would be a mismatch. However back then, a pack of 12-15 wolves fighting two men with swords and a squire armed with a pike had a good chance of winning the fight.

And then anybody annoyed by the supernaturalism of the movie ought to be consistent and definitely avoid movies about demons and possession set in the world today. Afterall, it was in times such as that in which the Crusader knights lived that such things were deemed not only possible but quite common.

So what would be my verdict on this movie? I grew up enjoying Dungeons and Dragons. I have been a lifelong history buff. I can appreciate that all kinds of people could have serious difficulties watching this movie. At the same time, I do appreciate the invitation to walk for 2 hours in the world of the time of the Crusades and Black Plague. I would not want to stay and would certainly not want to return with a lust for killing or hurting anybody. But I do appreciate the possibility of sojourning for those 2 hours with those Crusading knights in a world that otherwise I’d have difficulty imagining. As such I’d recommend the movie to the similarly adventurous but also make the reccomendation with the reservations I give above.

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