Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Season of the Witch (2011)

Poster for the movie (from Wikipedia)
As Halloween approaches, I thought it might be a good idea to review a medieval film about a witch and the plague. Said movie is, of course, the Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman film Season of the Witch. I have a special interest in witchcraft for a couple of reasons - first, because it was the basis for so much distrust in the middle ages; and second, because one of my ancestors was hanged in Salem for said offense. All that aside, I think that witchcraft (in the historical, devil-worshipping sense) is such an intriguing thing. As I mentioned in previous posts (here and here), what we don't have so much in the modern psyche is the concept of an omnipresent God. In the medieval period, though, and even through to the Enlightenment, people knew that God was around them and that the devil walked among them, sowing trouble for everyone. It is in this setting that the Season of the Witch takes place.
The beginning of the movie shows the trial and execution of three accused witches. After their hanging on the town bridge (an all-too-common location for that kind of thing), a priest attempts to bind their souls using verses from the Book of Solomon and we learn that two of them truly are witches. One manages to return from the dead before priest can complete his excommunication and the priest is killed while the witch escapes. The next part of the movie takes place during "the crusades" which is, sadly, an extremely broad term as currently used by historians. Some historians, such as yours truly, generally define it up through the fourth crusade when Byzantium was sacked by the crusaders. The writers have picked the Smyrniote Crusades due to its temporal proximity with the genesis of the Black Death. This gives them the opportunity to link returning crusaders with a suspicion of witchcraft for causing the plague. It also gave them a chance to make a statement on the crusades in general. During a battle, the main character, a knight named Behmen (played by Nicolas Cage), follows the exhortations of the papal representative to kill everyone in the city they finally breach. After killing an innocent woman and observing the bloodthirsty dispatching of other women and children, Behmen believes the crusade to be morally bankrupt and he and his friend Felson (played by Ron Perlman) decide to depart.
Historically, we know that the crusaders were pretty bloodthirsty. After the capture of Acre, for instance, the crusaders slaughtered the inhabitants, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike. Part of it was likely the expression of months of slowly building anger and hatred toward a city that refused to surrender, but for most of these crusaders, this was actually penitential. They believed they truly were doing God's work in the world by killing non-Christians. And if some Christians got killed along the way, that's kind of sad, but they were in heaven and better off for it. Anyway, back to the movie.
The two attempt to make their way back home and after stopping for supplies are waylaid by the local constabulary who ask if they have fulfilled their duties and been allowed to return or if they are deserters. This begins a series of more modern contrivances (including a line stating that "all charges be dropped") that drive the knights to accompany a priest and an accused witch to a monastery where they plan to try the girl. I was going write that I found this somewhat questionable, but crimes like this were generally ecclesiastical in nature. Much like modern day Saudi Arabia's religious police, the church had its own courts independent of secular authorities. In this particular case, it's certainly feasible (and potentially expected) that the malefactor here would be tried in ecclesiastical court.
A few others join the "merry band" to take the girl to the monastery. Through several difficult trials they lose the "red shirts" and end up at the monastery with our core group intact. Along the way and now at the monastery, though, we learn that this isn't just a case of witchcraft but of actual possession - and that the demon really IS the cause of the plague. Somewhat surprising as I had thought the whole thing was going to be a political treatise on "innocent until proven guilty" and "no secret CIA prisons" and such. Color me surprised that it was supernatural in origin! This is where I think the film went wrong - it ended up being a straight-ahead, no-twists kind of production. It's the ambiguity and grey areas that we treasure today. Is it okay to torture if lives are on the line? Under what conditions should our principles take a back seat to effectiveness?
The scriptorium at the monastery (credit: here)
The group tries to exorcise (not exercise) the demon, but the demon flees. The band enter to find that the plague has arrived here as well and the monks have perished. What made this monastery so special? They were copying the Book of Solomon (the same tome used in the beginning of the movie on the bridge). I did like the scriptorium - it was reminiscent of other places, but I fear that, for the era, they had too many books and scrolls around the room. In the mid-fourteenth century it was still wasn't all that common to have rooms of books. That's what made the destruction of the library in The Name of the Rose so devastating. Regardless, there's a nasty fight in the scriptorium and the demon is eventually banished leaving behind a naked girl. Huh. Well, there you are.
I think the idea was intriguing, but there are a lot of things here that are difficult for modern audiences to stomach unless it goes firmly into B movie fare. First, the story is straight - there aren't any twists to make it engaging. Second, the main characters are from a crusade that no one knows anything about. At least some people know about the 3rd crusade with Richard the Lionheart and all. And third, the story plays out predictably (beyond the straight-forwardness of the whole thing). The red shirts die along the way, there is a noble sacrifice, and the demon is vanquished. Yawn.
There was definitely some sacrifice of historical accuracy to make it more appealing and make good use of Ron Perlman. He's a little too much Hell Boy (which my daughter and I love) for the role, but still does a convincing job. As to the main actor, I have a love-hate relationship with Nic Cage. He's in some fantastic movies but he's like Jack Nicholson or Keanu Reeves - he plays himself every time. Sometimes it's the right part for him (like Neo was for Keanu). In this case I think he could have done it had the story not let him down.
What's the final grade on this one? I have to give it a C. It passes and I'll watch it again, but I just wish it had been so much more.