“The Secret of Kells” takes the religion out of religion

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The Secret of Kells, available as video-on-demand, is a fantasy film about monks who never mention God. Is that appropriate for the piece or missing the point?

It's the ninth century in Ireland, and everyone has either been attacked by Vikings, or is waiting to be. Brendan, a young boy who has spent his entire life behind the ever-growing walls of a monastery is struggling to please two father-figures. The Abbot Cellach, who is obsessed with fortifying the monastery against the threat of the Northmen, wants him to stay on the grounds and build the walls higher. The newly-arrived Brother Aidan has arrived with a manuscript that needs to be illuminated; given the ornately-drawn borders and brilliantly-colored pictures that medieval monks drew. He asks Brendan to go out into the forests beyond the monastery to collect the necessary ingredients for the paint.

While outside the walls, Brendan makes the aquaintance of a fairy, Aisling, and battles an ancient pagan evil spirit. And always, there's the threat of the Northmen.


The film itself is animated in the style of those ancient illuminations. People are angular and sparely-drawn. The film has a 2-D look to it. Vines and designs curl around characters in a deliberately stylized pattern. (It has to be said, though, that the simple drawing style results in some unfortunate caricatures when it comes to non-caucasian monks.) For the most part it's a gorgeous-looking film, and the scenes of grey uniformity in front of the Abbot's wall stand out. The wall is security. The manuscript, and its illuminations, are talked of as inspiration and hope. The struggle over which proves more enduring is the main conflict of the film.


Or does it? Pretty much every named character in this movie is a monk. They're not illuminating a book of secular poetry. Occasionally they talk about mysticism surrounding the great illuminators of their time, such as a mystical 'third eye' which arrived after a monk's prayer to help other monks become great artists. When the 'third eye' shows up, however, it's a crystal which inspires art by acting as a microscope and allowing Brendan to see nature more clearly. Christianity is a metaphor for art, not the other way around.

This wouldn't stand out so much if the pagan mythology weren't literal. Brendan repeats the Abbot's line that pagan nonsense doesn't exist, only to meet a fairy and fight a pagan monster. The film allows for the supernatural, but only a certain kind of supernatural. There are some who would say that this is respectful of Christianity - many practitioners of which wouldn't want their beliefs equated with wood sprites. Some would say that religion is beside the point. The movie was about the choice between the inspirational and the practical, and in that time and place only monasteries had the resources to make such a choice. Still, there are some who would say that you shouldn't make a movie about monks and dance around the word 'Jesus' like your shoes are on fire.