First and foremost, it’s worth noting that (a) ‘mute’ is an outdated term for the non-verbal, and is widely considered offensive, and (b) the title of this Polish historical drama is Krew Boga– which translates as ‘blood of god’. Blame the international distributor, I guess.
Two European knights, pledged to spread Christianity through the world, wash up on a bleak and foreign coast. In the nearby cave system they discover an entire community of Pagans worshipping their own god. While Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski) brings an entire fire-and-brimstone crusade to the locals, the pacifist Noname (Karol Bernacki) – disgusted by Willibrord’s actions – takes extraordinary measures to make amends.
The Mute, directed by Bartosz Konopka, is a dark and relentlessly bleak historical drama about two cultures colliding with catastrophic effects. It presents two drastically different crusaders in their encounter with an entirely alien and rather threatening community of Pagans. Their language is unfamiliar. Their culture is strange. Their own high priest covers himself in a thick pale mud – like a constantly fluid mask, into which he has dragged monstrous gouges to reveal his eyes and mouth. Everything seems to bear varying shades of grey. There is very little dialogue. It is a slightly testing experience, mainly because the funerary tone is so incessant, but by the end it is a very worthy one.
It is not necessarily an anti-religious film, but it certainly expresses a dim view of early European Christianity. The zealot Willibrord does not think twice about killing the local villagers in the name of indoctrinating them, and indeed deliberately challenges their local shaman to a trial he knows will result in the main’s death. Pieczynski delivers a strong performance loaded with inflexible disgust, that only splinters during the third act to offer any sense of humanity.
Noname, clearly more influenced by the Church’s references to piety and non-violence, cannot cope with his senior knight’s strategies. He winds up flagellating and mutilating himself – and in doing so, becomes a figure of religious power to the Pagans. Bernacki gives a performance almost entirely devoid of dialogue, expressing himself as much through sorrowful gazes and mournful poses as anything else. It is a powerful achievement on his part.
In keeping with Noname’s silent nature, The Mute is a film effectively dominated by silence. Subtle background noise is everywhere: the echo of caves, local wildlife, the wind through the trees, and so on. Konopka has directed a film rich in atmosphere and tone, to an arguably excessive degree. So threatening is the building tension that it feels as if at any moment the film is going to shift sharply from drama to horror.
Its story is powerful but somewhat simple, and with its slow pace and lack of dialogue it does occasionally waver close to becoming a chore. Thankfully by the film’s conclusion events spark up a degree, as the fates of Willibrord, Noname, and the converted villagers becomes clear. The Mute is an imperfect film, but it brings an emotional power from which it is difficult to turn away.