Pilgrimage is the kind of movie you rarely find outside the festival circuit. The age of franchises and cinematic universes has threatened the livelihood of standalone epics, especially those of the historical variety. It has been years since we had a Gladiator-like juggernaut that balanced intriguing storytelling with blockbuster thrills, and even longer since an undeniable gem such Braveheart made it to wide release. Director Brendan Muldowney’s latest falls short of the power these stories convey, but it offers many of the same qualities that make them great.
We begin in 55 A.D., watching as a Christian is exposed and brutally stoned. Jump to the year 1202 and we find ourselves in Northern Ireland amongst a group of monks who have dedicated their lives to one of their religion’s holiest relics. A rider from the South comes claiming the holy father needs the artifact in Rome to help inspire soldiers fighting to spread God’s word. The brothers split, leaving a small group of monks to journey alongside the relic through rugged terrain bloodied from years of conflict.
Serving as our eyes and ears for this journey is Spider-Man: Homecoming star Tom Holland as The Novice – Brother Diarmuid, a young monk who has only ever known the land where the relic was kept. His closest companion is known as The Mute (Jon Bernthal), a silent man whose rank in the holy brotherhood falls somewhere below that of the monks. Together these men walk alongside their brothers until they encounter knights caught in an ongoing war. They agree to show the relic to the knights’ king, an older gentleman who is not long for Earth. The king sees the item as a way to get the Pope to bend to his will, and soon the monks find themselves on the run from the knights.
There are a lot of interesting questions at the heart of Pilgrimage, not to mention some striking observations on faith and politics, but it’s rarely delivered in a way that makes those things all that interesting to watch. The monks push forward at every turn believing there is no other option, and eventually – perhaps inevitably – they must question why. They must also question the motivations for their mission, as well as those of the men chasing after them. Is violence in the name of the God’s will always justified, or only when the people you agree with claim it so? And what of others who claim the same God as theirs? Do their prayers go unanswered or fall secondary to our own? If so, why? All good things to ask, but Muldowney doesn’t know how to showcase this kind of deep thinking in a compelling way.
Pilgrimage does spring to life from time to time with bursts of brutal, but never all that bloody battle sequences. Men with swords, clubs, and bows enact medieval warfare on one another in the name of a creator they ask to give them peace. The Mute fights on behalf of the Monks, and like the bigger questions posed in the film we never really know why. Maybe he led a past life that haunts him to this day, or perhaps he is gifted with brute strength by God through his proximity to the relic. Both are considered, but neither one is revealed as true.
As much as it may entertain certain historical action diehards it is hard to imagine a universe where Pilgrimage receives even the modest release it has without the ongoing popularity of superhero films. This is typically overlooked festival fare being given a shot solely because Spider-Man and The Punisher play a prominent role in the story. Without them, or perhaps without Holland and Bernthal having those other roles, this title would fly so low on the release radar you’d have a hard time finding the trailer on YouTube. The film itself simply does not have the dramatic heft or craftsmanship needed to stand on its own merits, and even with a stellar cast that fact cannot be completely tossed aside. It should be better than it is, but as it’s still pretty good for something you’ll no doubt pass on Netflix next time you’re in between binges.