SLIFF 2010 Review: VALHALLA RISING - We Are Movie Geeks

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Review by Dana Jung

‘Valhalla’ is a Norse mythological concept, defining a place where warriors slain in battle go after death. In most texts, it’s described as a great hall in the home of Odin, king of the Norse gods. A sort of warrior’s heaven, the dead go there to prepare for Ragnarok, the Norse equivalent to the Second Coming or Final Judgment in Christianity. These and many other complex themes are woven through the Danish film VALHALLA RISING. Though the film will no doubt be marketed as a sword-fest action flick akin to 300 or CENTURION, it is far removed from both of those movies. The story is simple, yet sets up a fascinating and thoughtful rumination on Christianity vs religious mythology, civilization vs nature, sacrifice vs coercion, and more.

Mads Mikkelsen (familiar as the Bond villain in CASINO ROYALE) is a mute anonymous warrior in an anonymous land. He is a fierce and brutal fighter being used in primitive gladiator-styled fights to the death. The time period is roughly 1000 AD, and Christianity is spreading. There is already conflict between the newer more zealous Christians and all other ‘pagan’ religions. The warrior falls in with a band of early Crusaders as they set off for the Holy Land. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.

The film opens with a violent combat scene, followed by a nearly silent 10 minute sequence that establishes the story. Nearly all the fight action in the movie appears in these opening segments. Director & co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t interested in action scenes, but in showing some incredible vistas (mostly shot in Scotland) with an eerie, naturalistic style that is reminiscent of Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO or more recently, Malick’s NEW WORLD. Nature is not just a background, it is a player in the story, which Refn uses to question the ability of religion to bond people together. And is the Mikkelson character some sort of Christ metaphor? He mysteriously has only one eye (Christian symbolism) and seems to be the only person who bathes (baptism?) regularly. He is almost Zen-like in his demeanor when not disemboweling an enemy. The young boy (innocent?) who tags along and acts as the observer/translator is left unharmed and perhaps unaffected by both the primitives and the Christians at the film’s somewhat obscure conclusion. Perhaps the rise of Christianity is the true Ragnarok, as it slowly but steadily overtake – whether by force or sacrifice – all other beliefs, even those more symbiotic with Nature. The viewer is left to decide whether this is a good or bad development in human history, long after this beautifully shot but frustratingly obtuse film ends.

VALHALLA RISING will play during the 19th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival on Sunday, November 14th at 9:15 pm at the Hi-Pointe Theatre.

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