In a time when the existence of a higher power is unquestioned, noblemen scheme and manipulate, injustice befalls the common people, and those pure enough to see through the lie that is “God’s will”, struggle to find meaning and direction in an increasingly brutal and hellish world.
Petr Jákl’s Medieval manages to tackle the theme of religious disillusionment, without presuming to fully know the minds of some of the historical figures its characters are based on. This makes for compelling cinema – it feels like we are actually witnessing Jan Žižka (the film’s protagonist) in the flesh, and yet the film makes it clear that he belongs to a different world from ours. He is therefore not a modern-day interpretation of an historical figure, and it’s unclear by the end of the film if Žižka’s character is any closer to atheism than he was at the beginning. But that is not to say that the physical and psychological toils that this character goes through, does not embody our contemporary struggle against unjust authority and religious dogma.
The film opens with a brief explanation of the geo-political situation in central Europe during the 15th century. We are told of Wenceslaus IV’s becoming king, while two popes, one in France and the other in Rome, divides Christianity within Europe. Wenceslaus (Karel Roden) has a lose grip on power, leading to instability in the region. As such, Žižka (Ben Foster) and his band of followers prepare to escort the king to Rome in the hopes that his coronation will restore the rule of law.
An excellently choreographed battle sequence jump-starts the plot. Lord Boreš (Michael Caine) is on his way to the king when his carriage is attacked by soldiers sent out by his political detractors. The cinematography envelops the action, from top-down shots taking in the natural surroundings to close-ups homing in on close quarter fights. The foley artistry is also commendable – from the raucous clashes of swords to the subtler sounds of maces scraping on boulders, the props look, sound and behave live the real deal.
By the end of this sequence, we get a sense of the sort of man Žižka is, someone who is battle hardened, cool under pressure, but also merciful when he can afford it. Boreš scolds Žižka for only just managing to save him. While what we see of Caine’s character is limited, he nevertheless delivers his lines with impact – speaking in a lower register, he guides the protagonist and reminds him of what is at stake.
Soon after, we meet the other players in the game. Henry III of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger) is introduced as the man expected to make the coronation possible. But rather than financing the journey to Rome, Rosenberg plots to get Wenceslaus deposed, so that Sigismund, Wenceslaus’ half-brother, seizes power.
When it becomes clear to Žižka that Rosenberg is uninterested in being a man of the people, the mission shifts from getting Wenceslaus coronated to a battle for his and his people’s survival.
Schweiger’s Rosenberg is fairly reserved for a man bent on chaos. Torak (Roland Møller), the military leader sent to kill Žižka, openly displays his sadism, while Sigismund (Matthew Goode) conducts his affairs with a certain confidence some would call delusional. That Rosenberg appears less like an archetypal villain adds to the believability of the whole situation; it is hard to conceive of anyone rising in rank while wearing their villainy on their sleeves.
Such is Rosenberg’s hidden character traits that it takes time for his fiancé, Catherine (Sophie Lowe), to realise Rosenberg’s true nature. But self-denial is also to blame, and when we are first introduced to her, its apparent that she is part of the problem; she has a lot to say about Christianity, but little insight into the lives of ordinary people. She is, in fact, the niece of the King of France, and capable of potentially steering the conflict in Žižka’s favour.
Understanding how religion is used in this conflict is essential to understanding the forces working against Žižka and the fight against tyranny. Of note is how Sigismund uses God as a guarantor for his success. Although he is working against Wenceslaus, he has no quips with letting others know that his cause is holy. In this society, claiming to be backed by God is the ultimate weapon, it can get people to rally behind you and mislead people about who to trust until it is too late.
Upon witnessing Žižka’s selflessness and discovering that he is just as concerned about the notion of right and wrong as she, Catherine joins Žižka’s plight. What follows is art in the truest sense of the word. We intimately experience the characters break free from the inner qualms that have held them back, resulting in moments that, when experienced on the big screen, feel nothing short of rapturous.
Petr Jákl is a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing. Having two characters – with unique character traits – unite against a common enemy does wonders for character development. Žižka, having seen and experienced a lot, redirects Catherine’s attention to what is real, encouraging her to be the change that she wants to see in the world rather than relying on a higher power to put things right. Catherine commits when she takes the life of one of the men sent out to stop them. After the deed, she stares at her bloodied hands in a scene reminiscent of Macbeth, but whereas Shakespeare intended for it to carry negative symbolism, here we see a character free herself from the shackles of inaction. Catherine’s religious disposition also rubs off on Žižka. She shows him the value of occasionally putting faith (although not necessarily the religious kind) above odds. In one scene, Žižka and Catherine locate a partisan about to be hanged. Žižka hesitates for a bit, pointing out that he is vastly outnumbered. The tension rises, and just before they lose yet another man, he acts, knowing full well that the chances of getting out alive are slim.
Throughout, Medieval is enthralling, thrilling and powerful. It is a film that stays true to the time period yet effectively raises questions still pertinent today. And the final shot? Visually imposing and emotionally arresting, I could devote an entire essay to its analysis. I would have stood up and cheered had I not been too busy wiping away tears. Medieval is, without a doubt, the best medieval film I have seen in recent memory.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan