(2009) director Nicolas Winding Refn
After watching Drive (2011) and noting that I’d never seen any other of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, a friend recommended Valhalla Rising to me. I recalled reading about Valhalla Rising when it was released, though I don’t think that I’d seen any trailers for it. A film about pagan Vikings and Christian Highlanders, bloody battles, and a misguided attempt to join the Crusades, I wasn’t exactly sure what I thought about it from the outside.
What’s it about? Interestingly the whole story is not so clearly elucidated. Not much is explained, and as a result there is a lot of figuring out to do, interpreting. Which I actually have to say I like in a film, though it might frustrate some.
Told in chapters or segments, the film opens with a tribe of highlanders who have a one-eyed man captured and chained, forced to fight brutally to the death against others. No one speaks for a long time in the film, and though ultimately there is dialogue, the one-eyed man is a mute. His character is beset by visions of blood and death, dreams, predictions, its not clear. But he manages to escape and kill the horde that held him. Except for a blonde, blue-eyed boy who had fed him.
They run into another tribe of men, Christians who are wanting to set out for the Holy Land to fight the good fight against the heathens. Somehow they convince the man and the boy to join them. Their ship becomes becalmed in a thick fog for some time and just as they are about to go mutinous and die, they find themselves in fresh water.
They believe that they’ve found the Holy Land but it’s clearly not the Middle East they’ve landed upon. It’s green and lush, and they discover aboriginal above-ground graves that speak of the unknown holy rites of other cultures. Eventually, they come into contact with these aboriginal peoples, often by being skewered by their arrows.
A mixture of religious zealot-ism, primitive visions of death, and fierce brutality rule their lives and instincts. The boy seems to be able to read the mute one-eyed man’s mind. And they believe that their new Holy Land is really Hell.
Despite some potential of magical realism, there is a definite adherence to a vision of natural realism. The men of this time would be like this, brutal, pious, primitive in their understandings, superstitious and thus embedded in, for us, a surreal reality. It’s not unlike Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) in a sense.
I also wondered about the intent of the story. With chapter titles like “Wrath”, “Men of God”, “Hell”, and “Sacrifice”, trying to suss out the intended meaning of the film isn’t entirely easy. At one point, the potentially pagan or non-Christian “One-Eye” almost seems a Christ figure of sorts. A brutal killing-machine of a Christ figure, but he comes to lead without speaking a word. The more even tempered of the warriors comes to realize that he might be their only hope of survival.
But the film also focuses on the hypocrisy of the brute devout. There is a spiritualism in essence here, one perhaps pan-pagan? Pre-Christian? But in a violent, cruel world, wherein brutality is necessary for survival.
I shan’t sit pondering the meaning here forever. It’s an interesting film. Not typical, not rote, not entirely straight-forward.