Bartosz Konopka’s historical drama The Mute attempts to answer some of the biggest questions to ever plague mankind: which God, if any at all, is the true saviour? And does everyone deserve salvation? Given its sense of burgeoning Bergman-esque existentialism, Konopka’s film is far from easy viewing. Relying heavily on body language and close-ups to get into the minds of its characters, we spend our time primarily with two knights, Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski) and Noname (Karol Bernacki) who are tasked with converting the inhabitants of a Pagan island to Christianity.
The film opens in first-person perspective as Noname jumps from a small sailboat filled with dead comrades. He washes up on the island after what appears to have been quite a terrifying ordeal. Making it even more so is Willibrord’s drastic action to push their remaining ship out to sea so that they cannot leave the island with the mission incomplete. It is in these first two actions that we see these men as their bare moral fibre. Willibrord is headstrong and determined, whereas Noname is willing to take the plunge as a means of survival.
These actions are important to take note of as Konopka consistently favours showing rather than telling. The Mute is a film of very little dialogue (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the title), relationships are forged and torn apart by deeds, not words. This alienating sense of being one small blip on the earth’s surface, cowering to their maker, is echoed further by the amplified sounds of nature. Branches crack, waves roll in and distant birds squawk as this unlikely pair traverse the islands in search of the Pagan’s.
Presented as almost savage, monstrous cave-dwellers, the Pagan’s worship their own God named Perun. Depicted in human form by the Pagan’s Shaman in an unforgettably creepy mask of wet clay in his very own performance art piece, Willibrord is quick to dismiss the fanatical devotion of the Pagan’s to a false God. Challenging their Shaman to a trial by fire to prove who is the true prophet, Willibrord’s methods teeter on the line of extreme and heartless. This is much to the frustration of Noname, who protests against Willibrord, stating that the mission was to save people, not inflict violence.
What then ensues is a moral, and often physical, battle between the different principles of both Willibrord and Noname. The film dissects themes of true religious devotion vs. man’s desire for power and nature vs. nurture amongst its gritty and desolate backdrop of the unknown forest and surrounding caves. Doused in blue, brown and grey hues, the constant reminder of the natural world and our insignificance within it is ever present.
While the film is staggeringly beautiful, its clay painted Pagan’s a National Geographic-worthy vision of naturalistic beauty, the film suffers from its incredibly slow pace. Due to its minimal dialogue, there is little chance for emotional resonance, or the chances to have those huge religious conversations that you see in films like The Seventh Seal. Obviously Konopka appears to be interested in stripping back his themes and storytelling to its essentials of survival and the hope in a Great Beyond, but the lack of in-depth communication can be off-putting.
Grounded in its environment and bold in its visuals, The Mute is a striking, if oftentimes bleak, exploration of religion in its most primordial and animalistic forms. While some viewers might be disappointed in the lack of a physical manifestation of the demons or devils, Konopka is much more interested in the personal demons dwelling within us.
The Mute screened at Cinepocalypse on June 14 and June 18
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here