We’re all familiar with the white savior narrative, especially in stories about colonialism. These stories usually center on a white man traveling to a strange land to somehow save its natives. In the case of The Mute, its Christian knights who wish to save the pagans from their god-less religion. While it is a film with a rather predictable and common story, and frankly not much new to say about colonialism or forced religious conversion, The Mute utilizes gorgeous cinematography and set pieces to make it stand out in a crowd.
The film opens in first-person perspective of Willibrord (Krysztof Pieczynski), a Christian knight who has traveled to an unnamed island with a vague quest of bringing its inhabitants God. He is in a tiny boat full of death with bodies strewn over its small floor. Willibrord must crawl over the corpses of his fallen comrades to grab a Bible before flinging himself into the sea. Through the use of first-person perspective we experience the turbulence of the roiling ocean and the claustrophobia of an oppressive ocean.
When he washes up on shore, the first-person perspective shifts to a nameless hermit (Karol Bernacki) who calls the beach home. As the camera shifts out of first-person perspective, we are introduced to a tentatively blossoming friendship based on survival. While not much background is given about these two men, we learn that they are both knights sent on religious missions to convert the local population. They decide to pair up and work as a team to bring God to the pagans, preaching the good word to the heathens. But of course this doesn’t go to plan as they approach the tribe and learn that all isn’t what it seems.
Nothing about this world is welcoming thanks to cinematographer Jacek Podgorski. It is a world awash in muted blues and browns, portraying the brutality of the landscape to these foreign knights. But there is a beauty in this brutality. Podgorski shoots the breathtaking landscape with an expert eye, capturing a duality of nature that reflects the mental turmoil of our protagonists.
The pagan tribe is also striking as their white clay-covered faces bob like skulls in the darkness. They are meant to initially appear horrifying, almost like monsters as their true faces are hidden behind paint. They speak to each other in a strange language that isn’t subtitled, which distances them even more from the audience. While this decision may let us better embody the knights’ perspective, it also makes these people seem less human. They are incomprehensible, unreachable, which in the eyes of the colonizer makes them less than human. Perhaps the director thought that in having a white tribe would absolve them of issues of portraying colonialism on screen, but that doesn’t keep The Mute from falling into stereotypical representations of a white savior narrative. It doesn’t help that the narrative is laser focused on the two religious men and their own journeys, with the tribe acting as nameless background characters that solely provide texture and intrigue.
While The Mute doesn’t try to grapple with the past besides saying, “religious persecution and colonialism is bad,” it tries to make up for that with gorgeous cinematography and strong performances. While it may not grab everyone’s attention due to its well-tread narrative, The Mute is a gorgeous visual experience that delves into the psyches of two men struggling with their faith. It is not a traditional horror movie, but it shows the horrors that men are capable of, especially when under the influence of an unknown entity known as God.