Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I recollect that the "look" of contemporary depictions of the middle ages originates with Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky. Gilliam conceived of a great unwashed age, in which everything is covered in mud, shit, and blood. Even movies that still indulge in the mythology of chivalry and the romance of history seem to have adopted this aesthetic these days, and it's the main feature of movies that deliberately deconstruct them both. Mud and blood are prominent features in Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising (2009). I'll assume that shit is a component, too. Fortunately, cinema doesn't convey smell to the audience.
Valhalla Rising is a period piece that presents history as a kind of terrifying dream fugue. It's not about facts. It's deliberately vague on the facts. It's about mood and texture. It's pretty damned creepy, actually. The story here is pretty simple: a one-eyed pit slave whose name we never learn escapes from his captors and exacts his revenge. Afterward, he falls in with a band of Christians bound for the holy land, but get lost on the journey and land, instead, in the New World, where they come to believe that they've actually landed in Hell. It's the way it's filmed that renders all of this portentous. Refn seems to be channeling an action movie through the sensibilities of, say, Michelangelo Antonioni by way of Apocalypto. This is all about figures against landscapes. Some of this film's shot composition have a kind of stately classicism about them. Every so often, these shots are interrupted by outbursts of outrageous violence. There's a stillness throughout most of the movie that amplifies the violence when it comes. It reminds me a bit of one of those Philip Glass pieces in which one note is repeated over and over again until it becomes a shock when it changes.
I should mention the tone of the violence here. This isn't "action movie" violence. This is too palpably horrific for that. It isn't intended to provide an adrenalin rush. I'm pretty jaded when it comes to screen violence, but the opening pit fights worked me over but good. Say what you will about CGI, I can't imagine the shot of one of One-Eye's opponent's skull opening at the blows it receives done with practical effects, and I'll even admit that I had to look away from it. The bare-handed disembowelment later in the film is equally nasty. Gore hounds might love this, but there's a lot of arty long takes to wade through to get to them. Art films and exploitation films have a long history of overlapping, and this is one of those intersections between them.
This movie depicts the twilight of the old pagan gods in the face of the new Christian god. The epigram at the beginning of the film says that in the beginning, there was man and nature, then mourns the coming of men with crosses who drove the heathen to the fringes of the earth. The title of the movie and the fact that the protagonist is a one-eyed Norseman should not be taken lightly. Although there is no raven imagery in the movie, One-Eye is blessed, it seems, with the gift of second sight. Near the end of the movie, Refn makes a point of filming Mads Mikkelsen with only the sky behind him. You can do the math. But, then, the movie has a bitter view of religion.
There are three fleeting images in this movie that suggest the filmmakers have no use for pagans or Christians. In the first, we see a group of pagans--one in Roman garb, the other in Scots--watching blood sports:
In the other, we see a group of nude women, shackled together:
And in the third, the viewer can be excused for missing the fact that the remains of the fire are human corpses. Hell, I missed it at first:
Old gods or new, their works are human misery. I don't know if Refn is an atheist or an anti-theist, but I'm willing to bet that he is. On balance, I think the Christians get the worst of his scorn, which is appropriate, I guess, given that Christianity still holds sway in the world. The essential misogyny of the Abrahamic religions is elided almost as a throwaway in that second shot, while the genocidal history of Christianity is elided--again, almost as a throwaway--in the third. Refn's disgust with the colonizing nature of Christianity is evident in the scenes near the end when the leader of the Christians vows to create a new Jerusalem in the land where they've landed. The arrows that end up taking him down are almost cathartic.
Valhalla Rising has chapter headings, a la Kubrick, with titles like "Wrath," "Silent Warrior," "The Holy Land," etc. These are often meant ironically, I think. Certainly, the Christians are NOT "Men of God," and "The Holy Land" is America (perhaps poking a sour kind of fun at American exceptionalism). The most enigmatic of these titles is the last one: "The Sacrifice." In Norse myth, Odin sacrifices himself by nailing himself to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, but in this movie, One-Eye does something else. The ending of the movie isn't easily explicable, and it carries in it a disquieting ambiguity. I like to think of it as the inhabitants of Eden rejecting the gods of the Old World, but that suggests cultural myths on its own. I'm not sure I like the ending of this movie, but I can't shake it, either. Once you're in tune with the rhythms of this movie, it gets under your skin.
Updated: I am reliably informed that the mud, shit, and blood aesthetic I'm talking about at the beginning of this was actually Terry Jones's idea.