[Cinepocalypse 2019 Review] The Mute

Not to sound hyperbolic, but some movies don’t feel like movies. They feel like experiences. They can flood you with a mix of sound and visuals that take you on a journey without really giving you the traditional narrative structure. Movies like this have a very thin line to walk between being mesmerizing masterpieces and boring and/or pretentious dreck. But when a movie slips out of nowhere that has the ability to grab you and sweep you along with the current, you have to celebrate it.

The Mute is that movie.

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What’s funny is that I almost didn’t ask for the screener. The plot synopsis sounded too esoteric and ponderous. But man what a surprising mix of stunning cinematography, music, acting and location. It begins with a first person perspective as a man prays to his god in Polish. He’s on a rickety boat, little larger than a canoe, with a crew of dead men. As he prays, he scrambles over the bodies, grabs a bible and throws himself in the sea, before dragging himself onto dry land. It’s a stunningly shot opener that puts us in the man’s shoes and shows us that we’re not in friendly land.

When we finally see the man (Karol Bernaki), we see he’s young and has no name. In the credits he’s listed as Bezimienny which, when translated from Polish, literally means Anonymous or Nameless. As he searches the crew, he discovers that an older man Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski) is still alive. Once awakened, the two men form an uneasy alliance. It’s obvious there’s some history there, though whatever it is, it remains frustratingly ambiguous throughout most of the film. Whatever past the two share, one thing is certain: they see the world differently. Willibrord, we quickly discover, is a Bishop sent to this new land to christen it for their King and to bring Christianity to the pagan natives. He believes that force and power are what will “save” these pagans while Bezimienny wants to learn from them and, in turn, they’ll learn from him.

As they make their precarious way inland, an awkward friendship blooms. It’s a friendship of requirement, as the path inland is full of stark forests, mountains to climb and caves where the sounds of pagan worship echo eerily and hauntingly off the walls. As they push onward towards the village, Willibrord dons his religious attire and large cross, ready to bring “enlightenment” to the natives. But when they reach the village, things quickly become complicated with the two men eyeing the path to their faith in two different ways. Willibrord challenges the pagan’s god to a fire trial and it sets off a chain reaction between the two men with the fate of the natives at stake.

I could probably outline the entire plot of the film and it wouldn’t make a difference. The Mute’s plot is slight and straight to the point and the movie isn’t really about story or narrative cohesiveness. It’s all about the tone and the atmospheric fusion of sight and sound. It’s filled with intense cinematography that frames our characters in extreme closeups, as if it were a magnifying glass trying to suss out hidden details. The color palette is shadowed in blues. For example, when the two men first arrive on dry land, the sun is framed in the sky, casting shadows on the ground but it doesn’t feel warm and inviting. The beach itself looks shades of blue, almost colorless. The intensely blue waves crash against the gray-blue sand. Blues upon more shadowy blues. The contrast cranked up high. It feels desolate. Alien.

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The way cinematographer Jacek Podgórski shoots the characters and action reminds me of the stunning works of Emmanuel Lubezki who shot movies like Terrence Malick’s The New World, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, among other noteworthy films. It’s absolutely captivating and tells the story where words often fail. The way Podgórski mixes the color palettes with the moving cinematography gives it such an intense focus that it carries the movie along like a raging river. Scene upon scene flows from one to the next; a large painting that ensnares your attention and won’t let go.

It’s not an easy movie to love. Contrasting with the incredibly personal and up-close framing where you can see each individual crevice and sweat bead on the actors’ faces, the movie uses language and subtitles—or the lack of them—to keep you at arms length. The knights speak Polish, which is subtitled, but when they meet the natives, their native tongue isn’t translated or subtitled. This puts us directly in the knight’s shoes, unable to really understand the natives. The language barrier becomes frustratingly perfect as we are forced to make sense of the motivations through facial and body expressions and tone.

There’s so much more I want to discuss about The Mute. When we’re first introduced to the natives physical manifestation of their god Perun, he covers his face in a clay-like mud that is off-white on the surface, But then he pokes holes in it for his eyes and it starts to drip blackish red. And the way the man rends his mask as if its flesh, exposing the brownish red clay underneath is an image I haven’t been able to get out of my head. The way the natives god Perun smothers his face in a mud-like clay that he pokes holes in for his eyes and rends the mask as if it’s flesh is an image I won’t be able to get out of my mind.

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As the relationship between the two conquering priests frays and sides are chosen, the end seems inevitable. Yet, the way the third act callously ends is a stunning and terrifying mix of cinematography and animalistic violence that hit me in the gut. It’s a striking movie that has something to say, but does so with sounds and visuals rather than traditional storytelling and dialogue. You can tell that there is a singular vision and intent here, one that reminds me of similar works of auteurs like Hagazussa or Mandy. And with that comes divisive opinions.

The Mute won’t be for everyone. But for some, it’ll be their favorite movie this year.