Sword of God clashes between Christians and pagans

A Religious medieval drama
Written by Bartosz Konopka, Przemyslaw Nowakowski, & Anna Wydra
Directed by Bartosz Konopka

Religious conflict makes for anger, hysteria, and violence. You get plenty of these emotions in this powerful, Polish tale. Set on a northern island in the early middle ages, Bartosz Konopka’s frightfully striking film pits Christianity against a more humane pagan tradition.

Two men from the mainland arrive in a small boat. Their intent: to convert the pagans to Christianity. The older man (Krzysztof Pieczynski) is the sort of fanatic who finds all non-Christians evil. He sees violence as a religious tool – although he sometimes shows a weariness towards more killing. The younger man (Karol Bernacki) is gentle and kind. The film doesn’t really explain why the younger man went on the trip; there are hints that he had gotten into trouble with the law.

With their faces smeared with white clay, the pagans seem strange and frightful. But they soon prove to be generally decent, although willing to use violence if necessary.

In one early scene, the older man “proves” the power of his religion by standing in a large campfire; it hurts horribly, but he stays there for a considerable time. Afterwards, the younger man asks him how he did the trick. The older man insists it was no trick, but faith.

Eventually, they will have to go their separate ways. When the older man gets enough followers, he will become seriously dangerous.

Cinematographer Jacek Podgórski creates a beautiful ugliness out of mist, fire, and muted color. Thick liquids ooze from everywhere. Jerzy Rogiewicz’s haunting music helps you believe that you’re in a strange and unnatural place – even though nature is all around.

As you should expect, most of the dialog is in Polish with English subtitles. The pagans’ language isn’t subtitled; after all, the men from the mainland can’t know what they’re saying. But not for long. Some of the pagans, it turns out, were once mainland Christians and speak Polish.

Technical problem: Near the end of the film, something goes wrong in the languages. One character from the mainland goes back and forth between Polish with English subtitles and English with no subtitles (when I first saw it, it was English with Polish subtitles). That really took me out of the movie. I assume this was an error of some sort, and I hope it will be fixed in the version available for paid audiences. [Note: I have altered this paragraph since I first posted the review.]

I already know of at least one difference between the version I saw and the one going to paying customers. The review edition was titled The Mute. That’s as appropriate a title as is Sword of God, but I can’t tell you why without giving something away.

I’ve seen other films about Christian missionaries trying to convert the “heathen.” Usually this sort of story deals with racism. The pagans have always been Africans, Native Americans, Polynesians, and so forth. But this time, everyone is white.

You can buy tickets for in-home viewing at the Alameda Theatre & Cineplex website.