Kingdom of Heaven
dir. Ridley Scott
Opens Fri May 6.

In Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, Liam Neeson plays Godfrey of Ibelin, knight to King Baldwin IV, Crusader for Christian Europe, and a man who "once fought for two days with an arrow through [his] testicles." Anyone who has spent a few hours watching the cinema of Ridley Scott may know how he feels. This time around, however, the wildly divergent director (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, White Squall, Gladiator) has turned an impossibly complex subject into a surprisingly decent film.

The year is 1186 and Jerusalem has been under Christian control for 100 years. Trouble, however, is percolating: Some 200,000 Muslims linger outside the city's walls, and though there's a fragile truce, skirmishes between Christians and Muslims have been increasing. All the situation needs is a spark--a king falling to leprosy, say, or ambitious zealots on both sides--for things to quickly go boom.

Godfrey, in his war-torn wisdom, has forecast the coming collapse, and as the film opens, he's en route to France in search of a son he's never known. He finds him in a grimy hamlet, pounding out swords on an anvil. His name is Balian (a surprisingly butch Orlando Bloom), and we meet him just after his life has lost all meaning; his wife, having lost their child, succumbed to grief and took her own life, casting the shadow of unforgivable sin on both her and her husband. Because of this, Balian initially refuses his newfound father's offer to join the cause in Jerusalem--after all, why give your life to the Crusades when God has already turned His back on you?

As it turns out, a reason quickly arrives when Balian, after some nasty words with a local priest, gives the holy man a run-through with a sword. It's a rash act, spurred by hatred for both God and life, and it sends Balian packing. Unfortunately, soon after he arrives in Godfrey's care, yet another life is taken from him: An attack on the camp leads to an arrow to his father's ribs, and all of sudden Balian, the young blacksmith, finds himself a knight, a Crusader.

Sadly, all this early mayhem is assembled far too quickly by Scott, who obviously can't wait to arrive in the Holy Land, with its promises of cannonballs and clashing armies. As a result, the opening moments of Kingdom of Heaven are its weakest; even what should have been a thrilling shipwreck is given short attention, crafted as little more than noise and jittery images (though Scott, true to his style, manages to pause long enough to take in the beauty of a sail billowing gently underwater). Once Balian arrives in Jerusalem, however, things settle down, and Kingdom of Heaven turns surprisingly spiritual. Like the abominable The Passion of the Christ, Scott's film delivers its sermon soaked in blood; unlike Mel Gibson's Catholic porn, however, Kingdom condemns zealotry instead of fueling it.

The dance between carnage and faith is a delicate one, and it's to Scott's credit that he doesn't allow his film to be overcome with the thrills of gore. The spiritual tunnels the director mines are not terribly deep, but Kingdom of Heaven's refusal to take sides--condemning neither Christians nor Muslims--gives the film a startling strength. Some may call this decision a cop-out, or even cowardly, and it may indeed be both. But it's hard to argue that for an epic crafted around the spectacle of violence, the amount of attention Scott has given to the meaning of God (and, in the case of the film's hero, the question of God), is surprising in these polemic times. Religion isn't merely a prop in the film, it's the driving theme, with both sides appearing honestly fallible, and in the end neither side winning. As the Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) tells Balian after the siege on the city has subsided, Jerusalem means "nothing… everything." This is what Kingdom of Heaven is built upon: the inherent cynicism found not in faith, but in the organization of faith. We all knew Scott would deliver the spectacle (which he does, often at an awe-inspiring level), but who knew he'd deliver a message for our times as well?

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