Friday, 23 April 2010

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising Explained

Death has dominion over this nauseating Nordic blood bath of a movie.

Just as last year's Bronson was a huge step forward for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, from his Pusher trilogy, so too is Valhalla Rising a definitive progression in the forging of his identity as an auteur (Drive really confirms his skill). The tension of this slow moving story, punctuated with explosions of ultra violence and fountains of blood, is heart stopping. The dialogue is sparse; the protagonist is a mute Viking slave who has killed his masters and is accompanied only by a young boy who speaks on his behalf.

The film is set against dark and ominous Scottish Highlands occupied by Nordic pagans whose way of life is threatened by the spread of Christianity. A group of Christian Vikings find the pair and see the benefit of bringing the one eyed slave bezerker on a journey to Jerusalem for the first Crusade. After they embark, the Christians suspect that a mysterious fog that impairs navigation is a curse brought upon them by the pagan slave. He is too powerful to kill and at any point in the film when he is challenged there follows a gory scene with lashings of crimson and the barbaric sounds of axe cleaving flesh and splintering bone.

Without a background knowledge of the subject matter, the plot may seem far fetched and the violence gratuitous. It is remarkable that in fact every aspect of the film; from the decapitation of a chieftain whose head is then placed on a pole (a magic rite to pagan vikings), to the accidental discovery of Canada hundreds of years before Columbus, were things that actually happened. All the activities of these fictional characters are based on archaeological and mythological sources.

The linear story of an escaped slave finding salvation amongst Christians is brought into question. The slave never confirms his beliefs and is content to kill the Christians at the first sign of aggression. The name of the pagan protagonist is One-eye, a Viking nickname for their God of war Odin. When questioned by the Christians as to the origins of the slave, the boy responds, "he was brought up from hell." It seems that One-eye is more symbol than character. His emotions and intentions are never made clear. He is a source of fear for the Christians who mistake Canada for Hell, believing the pagan slave has led them there using magic. But he is also a guardian figure who takes the boy under his wing after killing the rest of his tribe.

The film explores the complex issues of cultural and spiritual conflict that were being played out in Europe 1000 years ago. The Christianisation of Europe, the slaughter of the pagans, followed swiftly by the first crusade and the slaughter of Muslims in the holy land are all addressed. While in Europe the pagans are said to live on "the edge of the world," hunted and killed in their thousands, in Canada the tables are turned and the pagan Indians hunt the Christians. The Viking landings in the new world ended badly and foreshadowed the colonisation of the Americas 500 years later. The repeating shots of crosses from obscure angles cut with One-eye's premonitions of extreme violence seem to be a message of the danger of Christianity. The Christian Viking leader's maniacal screams about "My new Jerusalem!" echo those of the early Christian settlers of America who made similar declarations before slaughtering native Americans.

The appeal of this movie for most will not be the spiritual message nor will it be the un-hurried cinematography and beautiful shots of the Scottish highlands. It will be violence. There is no denying the violent scenes are shockingly graphic, but they are too sparse to hold the attention of the average sociopathic gore-hound. Some sections are extremely drawn out and confusing, including a scene in which one viking inexplicably rapes another whilst under the influence of a hallucinogenic narcotic. Nothing is explicitly explained in the film. For some this will make the challenging story more intriguing, for others it will be simply bewildering.

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