Thursday, January 5, 2012

Religious Critique in Season of the Witch

"The Last of the Templar"--Ominous much?
Next month I'll be presenting at an academic conference on Religious Critique in 21st Century Medieval Period Films. I'll be looking at the portrayal of the Church in films like Arn: The Knight Templar, Black Death, and of course, Season of the Witch. When undertaking a research project, I often tell my students to start by writing short summaries and their thoughts on the different sources they may use, and I thought I'd take my own advice by starting a new feature in which I do the same! Exciting, eh?

Most probably ignored Nicolas Cage's romp through medieval Europe to deliver a suspected witch for trial as the Crusades deserter Behmen with his tough partner Felson (played by the incomparable Ron Perlman). And you could be excused for that. It's not exactly what one might consider "high cinema." The historical accuracy's questionable at best, the acting (as with Cage, per usual) is pretty silly, and the characters are fairly cliche. But the story is what interests me here.

While the tale of a Crusades knight deserting for loss of faith isn't new (Behmen leaves the Holy Land when he realizes that the priests at the head of his army are having him strike down defenseless women and children, "In the name of God"), where the story goes from there is a little different. Behmen and Felson get arrested as deserters shortly after their return to plague stricken Europe, and of course, witchcraft is to blame. But the supposed witch has been caught for the telltale signs that she was 1) a woman, 2) wandering alone at night, and 3) speaking to herself--par for the course when the Church is looking for a witch to blame. Luckily, she gets a trial in a far off monastery responsible for copying the Book of Solomon, the holy book used to identify and kill witches, as well as perform exorcisms. Unfortunately, there aren't enough people to transport her there, what with everyone dying and all.

Ah, simpler times...
So Behmen and Felson take up the cause in exchange for their freedom along with a plucky band of adventurers who *Spoiler Alert* almost all die before they get there due to supernatural occurrences. And it's not much better when they do get there, since all the monks have also died from the plague, and (Surprise!) it turns out the girl isn't a witch but is possessed by a demon--and not the fun kind who pee on the floor and projectile vomit. This demon has used the girl's trial for witchcraft to be brought to the final copy of the Book of Solomon so that he can destroy it (never mind that he could have just flown there). In the end, Behmen dies, but not before exorcising the demon, saving the Book, and renewing his faith in the Almighty.

Still, Season of the Witch is different from many of the other films I'll be looking at. While the religious critique regarding motivation for the Crusades (at one point, Behmen yells at his captors, "No one has spilled more blood in God's name than I. A benevolent god would not ask such things of men.") and the identification of witches (discussed above) is obvious, the film takes an interesting turn in regards to the latter. The movie begins with the execution of three seemingly innocent women for witchcraft when (again, Surprise!) it turns out one probably was a witch and the another was the aforementioned demon who kills the priest performing the execution and destroys his copy of the Book of Solomon. And while the main girl is clearly innocent of witchcraft, she is possessed. So is the message that, 3 out of 4 times, the Church's methods work? Or does the demon just exploit how blindly the Church assigns blame in order to get close to the books? I'm inclined to go with the second option.

But also of interest is Behmen's renewal of faith, which is rare in these films. Most of these kind of heroes are heroes because they defy the church. And while most of them don't witness their best friend burned alive by a demon, Behmen still stands out for ending the story as he began it--a soldier of God. This coupled with the Church's respectable batting average of .750 when identifying the damned suggests that the film, in the end, is pro-Church. Again, this is odd given the other films of this genre, but I guess someone has to stand out.

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?

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