The all-star cast of Pilgrimage is not the only reason you should be tuning into this movie, but it’s certainly the biggest.
I’ll get this out of the way first — I’m not particularly religious, nor do I usually seek out movies about faith. I like explosions and car chases and well-choreographed fight sequences. But I also like Jon Bernthal and Tom Holland, so when I learned they made a movie together, I already knew I was going to see it.
Pilgrimage does what it says on the tin. A group of monks are tasked with transporting a relic across the Irish countryside. Though the monks feel more comfortable with the priceless artifact staying safe and secure under their watch, when they learn the directive comes from the Pope himself, they are not given any other choice.
Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber) and a small contingency of monks accompany the relic. Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland) is young and has only ever seen the monastery; he is sent to join the group in order to experience more of the world. The Mute (Jon Bernthal) is strong and devout; he is sent to protect the relic and the brothers.
Baron De Merville (Eric Godon) proves to be a pious ally to Brother Geraldus and his cause, but his son, Raymond De Merville (Richard Armitage), sees the relic as nothing more than a bargaining chip. This is where the film truly comes into its own.
The movie is undoubtedly about faith. You can’t talk about monks and the church and relics without having one of the moral lessons of the film be about believing in a higher power. But Pilgrimage is about so much more than religious faith. It implores you to have faith in humanity. It shows you what you can accomplish when you have faith in yourself. It encourages you to have faith regardless of your circumstances.
Pilgrimage toes the line when depicting people of faith. It at once makes them reverent without glorifying them. Brother Geraldus is perhaps the most respected of all the followers, and yet he is the one who is most willing to blur the line between right and wrong. Brother Diarmuid is the youngest and the most naive, and yet he is the most certain in their quest. The Mute is, both figuratively and literally, the most scarred member of their group, and yet he willingly charges into battle over and over again in order to protect those he cares for.
I didn’t enjoy this movie because it made me believe in God. I enjoyed this movie because it made me believe in people.
The Mute had seen the absolute worst of humanity, but he was still willing to put his life on the line to protect it. Brother Diarmuid did not write off the silence of his friend as stupidity or inadequacy. He never once treated The Mute like an animal, despite not knowing the man’s past sins.
This film is violent and ugly. It does not shy away from historical truth in favor of an idealized world of piety and humanitarianism. The graphic depiction of a stoning in the opening scene is proof enough of that. The frenzied skirmishes that follow drive home the point.
But despite the backdrop of gray skies, clanging swords, and severed heads on pikes, Pilgrimage provides hope. It speaks to doing the right thing, not because you were told it was right, but because you know in your heart that it is. For some, that requires great personal sacrifice. For others, it requires a sense of strength that cannot be taught, but which is innate.
If you have doubts about whether or not Pilgrimage is the right kind of film for you, I would suggest taking a chance. Bernthal, Holland, and Armitage in particular give fantastic performances that are well worth the watch. The Irish and Belgian countrysides are majestic and transportive, and the film leans into the idea that its characters are from all over the world by using many languages and many different dialects and yet they share common experiences and goals.
It’s a lesson we should keep in mind, even today. If nothing else, the sweeping landscapes and subtle characterization found within Pilgrimage make for a movie worth discussing.