Modern Polish art and media seem to be steeped in the abyss almost as a default. Surrealist artists and sculptors like Zdzisław Beksiński and Stanisław Szukalski made their careers out of painting nightmares so beautiful and terrible you can’t help but stare, and contortions of the human form, nature, and industry out of bronze and plaster and stone; harsh, tarnished, shiny. Polish horror film The Mute is very much of this tradition, and for its entire 100 minute run time manages to be enrapturing, beautiful, and deeply uncomfortable.
Award winning director Bartosz Konopka’s newest film follows two Christian knights, violence-prone Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski), and a nameless defector (Karol Bernacki) living as a hermit on a deserted beach. Though both have come to this remote island for the same singular purpose of converting the pagan people in the mountains to their own religion, their methods and morality could not be more opposed. While the hermit seeks to win them over with understanding, humility, and an embrace of their culture and people, Willibrord veers towards intimidation, violence, and deception. As a rift forms between them, and the people’s allegiances are decided, we’re left to wonder which version of Christianity and humanity will win out: the way of empathy or the way of blood—and how far each man is willing to go for their politics and their faith.
Visually, The Mute is stunning: It’s a harsh, high contrast view of humanity, spirituality, and raw nature akin to films like Hagazussa or The Witch. The lighting is cold, and the walled in rocky mounds of the pagan village help create an atmosphere of dread and claustrophobia that permeates throughout. The pagan village and the residents themselves are hypnotic to watch, the raised walkways giving views of them from basically every angle and reminding both us and the two knights that they’re eternally watched, both my man and their god. The villagers move in a manner similar to modern dance; their white clay and fur-covered bodies cavorting in sharp pulses and serpentine contortions as their shaman covers his face with a mound of clay before poking two holes for eyes and tearing apart a wet gash for a mouth. With a language barrier between the Polish knights and the pagan villagers, bodily emphasis is essential; the hermit moving in a gentle, calm manner with a relaxed posture, and Willibrord standing rigidly straight and walking with extreme purpose and an arrogant confidence.
Said language barrier also has the interesting effect of limiting the dialogue exclusively to the knights; showing us their character and moral codes through discussions between themselves and the variety of prayers or Biblical passages each clings to in their times of need. This could get grating, or even feel preachy if handled poorly or seemingly at random; but here it provides so much richness to the knights as well as foreshadowing to a Catholic audience, as would be found in a country like Poland.
That baked in Catholicism also makes this movie interesting for a different reason: its condemnation of fanatical evangelical religion and its humanizing of the pagan people that came before. Poland is a deeply religious country, to the point where many question whether or not their current government borders on, or is full stop, a theocratic government rather than a democracy. In that climate, it is fascinating to see someone so high profile in Polish cinema as Konopka taking a scalpel to ancient and, in some cases, current Catholic and Christian behavior and ideals in regards to humanity and political gain. Though, that said, it may be his tenure that allows him to wield this scalpel efficiently and with a wide, eager audience.
All this said, the film is not spotless. There are issues in pacing that make certain spots feel stretched a bit too thin and in a late night screening caused some in the audience to appear fatigued by the length of the film and the sometimes slow, sweeping camera work. However, in no way should that be a hard deterrent from watching what is one of the most fascinating works of Polish cinema, and horror in general, that I’ve had the pleasure to see this year and beyond.