THE MUTE, which just had its North American premiere at the Cinepocalypse Film Festival, is a Polish/Belgian production about a Bishop in the Early Middle Ages who is sent to an island to convert the natives of the village. Directed by Bartosz Konopka, an Academy Award nominee for Short Subject, and starting Krysztof Pieczynski, Karol Bernacki, Jan Bijvoet, Jeroen Perceval and Olivier de Sagazan, it is an impressionistic and beautiful film about innocence and human ugliness.
The film does not bother explaining much and about 50% of the dialogue is not translated, so the film demands that you pay attention and apply your human empathy and critical thinking skills to interpret what is actually going on during its running time. It is a tragedy, as all stories of colonization are. Instead of going to a far off land to conquer and force native people to worship “God”, they start with their own people. The idea that people of a specific religion have a divine right to demand that others worship their God is the driving force of the story. The film just drops you in the situation and makes you figure out what the goals of the two protagonists are.
The people of the village are mostly innocents, a group of highly empathetic people who feel and take on the pain of their fellows through exaggerated physical movements, sounds and touch. Willibrord and Nameless, the two survivors of the expedition, land on the island, bury their dead and proceed into the interior.
Unlike your standard conquerors, Willibrord seems to have sympathy and be touched by the people, and Nameless joins them. Willibrord knows, however, that his king is on the way and expects that everyone in the village is converted to their religion and for a church to be built. Some of the villagers begin to help after their shaman dies and their leader realizes that change is coming despite their own right to live the way they always have. Elements within the village become jealous of the newest member who seems to have healing powers. Willibrord’s own anger and fear rise up and the fight for the souls and the lives of the village begins.
The film is really quite gorgeous looking and the camera work, I sadly have not been able to find a credit for the cinematographer and where it was specifically shot, and the scenery is spectacular. A specific shot was so clear, that I found myself marveling being able to see each pore in the main actor’s nose. Yes, that much detail. The acting is very naturalistic and raw. You can feel where the film maker’s sympathies are and his sense of injustice for mankind’s need to control both their environment and the other, our violence and cruelty, and our inner strengths and compassion that sometimes sadly leads to the doom of the best of us all. I cannot think that it is any type of coincidence that the evilest and callous words spoken in the entire film are pronounced in perfectly understandable English or that The Mute is mute voluntarily.
This is a film where you have to put some work in. It is historical and about a subject that probably makes Western audiences feel uncomfortable, especially at this time in history as a reckoning is beginning to happen within our borders. It’s worth sticking with to expand your mind and challenge your ideas of film and film structure. In a way, it is a throwback to works like Refn’s Valhalla Rising and that’s a good thing. It makes the point that you don’t have to communicate verbally to understand another human being. It is a movie that asks you to do your own thinking.