The Middle Ages, once a staple setting for Italo costumers, is back in a big way. While Ermanno Olmi’s “The Profession of Arms” awaits release, Pupi Avati is first out of the gate with the swashbuckling, old-style genre item “Knights of the Quest.” Tale of five young Crusaders in search of the Holy Shroud in which Jesus was buried is one long, adventurous romp across Italy, Tunisia and Greece — grisly at times, hokey and predictable at others, but basically good fun. “Knights” aims for a wide international audience and should be able to make that step in some other Eurolands, with genre pickups farther afield. An English-lingo version is also in the works, though a majority of the actors are non-Anglophone. Pic did solid business in Italy its first two weeks after opening in early April.
Running close to two-and-a-half hours, pic is a surprise entry from eclectic indie director Avati, whose long career has ranged from horror pics (“Zeder”) to jazz salutes (“Bix”), reaching its critical peak with the Kammerspiel-like dramas “Story of Boys and Girls” and “A Christmas Present.”
The Catholic relic known as the Holy Shroud disappeared from the Holy Land in 1204 and turned up in France in 1356. “Knights” sets out to imaginatively fill the gap of where it was in the meantime.
In 1272, the soon-to-be-saint French crusader King Louis IX lies dying in his royal tent in the Tunisian desert. When he breathes for the last time, we witness the surgical removal of his heart, which will be carried back to France, while his body is dissolved in a cauldron of bubbling acid.
This is the first of pic’s stream of gruesome details showing why the Middle Ages are called barbaric. There follow such goodies as a Satanic smithy roasted alive; axe-severed limbs; rolling heads; hands nailed to trees, etc. Yet pic lacks the closeup detail to shock violence-inured auds.
Instead, it focuses on the heroic young knights who gradually assemble themselves into a mini-crusade to find the Holy Shroud: Simon of Clarendon (mop-top Edward Furlong); baby-faced French aristo Jean de Cent Acres (Stanislas Merhar); Rainiei di Panico (a magnetic, game Marco Leonardi); and stalwart knight Vanni delle Rondini (Thomas Kretschmann).
Before he dies, the demonic smithy passes on his secret for making unbreakable swords to his assistant, Giacomo (Italian star Raoul Bova, here unrecognizably haggard, and shorn of his sexy locks). Giacomo becomes the servant of Kretschmann’s Rondini, who with his gladiator physique and cold aplomb makes the best showing of the bunch.Finding fully-saddled horses everywhere they go, the knights make their way to the sea. There they find Delfinello (F. Murray Abraham) and his wrecked ship, which will take them to the Holy Land. Delfinello’s hospital for wounded knights, with its vast adjacent cemetery, is the nearest that film comes to making a comment on the useless bloodshed of the Crusades.
Pic’s lack of a clear point-of-view is what ultimately does it in. Other weakness is the absence of all but the most basic character psychology, turning the knights into historical icons without any depth.
Individually, the strong international cast feels cut adrift and uncentered, though the actors manage to create distinctive, if shallow, characters. The burden is particularly obvious on Furlong, who is called on to take spiritual lead for no apparent reason, beyond being the American member of the cast, when a more natural choice would have been Bova’s tormented Giacomo.
Pic enjoys the backup of a fine Italian production machine, headed by p.d. Giuseppe Pirrotta, costumer Nana Cecchi and Avati’s regular composer, Riz Ortolani.