Connemara the star of medieval western

A film about medieval Irish monks shot in the middle of a heatwave in Connemara and starring no less than two Marvel Comics superheroes is set for a global cinematic release.

Pilgrimage received its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh last week attended by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

It is already creating quite a buzz, with two national newspapers giving it four and five stars.

Producer Conor Barry describes it as “a medieval western road movie”

“It’s an exploration of what faith makes you do which is an interesting subject given the current situation with Isis. Ireland in the 13th century hasn’t really been represented before in dramatic history,” he explains.

The writer Jamie Hannigan developed the script after hearing about the legend of St Matthias. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Matthias was chosen by a cast of lots among disciples to replace Judas Iscariot following Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent death.

There are many accounts about the death of Matthias. One of them states he was stoned at Jerusalem by the Jews and then beheaded. The stone used to kill him became a treasured relic, reputed to have fierce powers.

When the Pope decreed that this relic must be returned to Rome from Ireland, a group of monks set out on a perilous journey across an island torn apart by tribal warriors and Norman invaders.

“It’s quite original in terms of its take on this period. Its action driven but it also features the Irish language in 25% of the dialogue – it features French, Latin and English, so it’s very authentic.”

There is talk that it may well be a contender for best foreign language film when the annual Oscar awards come around.

The film made for just €4.7m has struck gold by having two actors playing the lead roles in block buster hero projects. Tom Holland is hitting global big screens as Spider-Man, while Jon Bernthal, who starred in Wolf of Wall Street and in The Walking Dead, takes the lead role in the first series on Netflix of The Punisher, also a Marvel Comics character.

“Our American partners were XYZ Films who have a very good record for tracking talent that will be big.

“They identified these actors as being on the up. They went on pursue the superhero projects after they had committed to Pilgrimage, which finished filming in May 2015. In fact, both Tom and Jon did some of their audition tapes while filming in Mayo and Galway.”

Holland plays the pious young novice who charts the journey while Bernthal is a mute lay-brother with a violent past. Directed by Brendan Muldowney, it also stars Richard Armitage, star of the Hobbit and Captain America, who plays a vicious Norman knight.

Holland, whose first big break was in the title role in Billy Elliot The Musical in London’s West End, took lessons in Irish with a language coach for the role and can now manage a smattering of sentences ‘as gaelige’. His grandmother hails from Tipperary Shot mainly in Leenane and Cong, the scenery was truly breathtaking, admits Conor.

“We only discovered after we got there that Leenane is the wettest place in Europe. Yet, when we were filming in April 2015 we probably had the best heat wave of all time, it was like Italy with these blue skies. We had to wait sometimes for the skies to get grey when we needed a bit of gloom,” he recalls.

“Richard Armitage tells the story of filming on a beach and seeing a storm out to sea about an hour and a half away. When it landed it pelted everyone with hailstones and rain and then just disappeared. If anything, it added to the magical atmosphere – it was epic.

“I can’t say enough good things about filming in Galway and Mayo. It was an amazing experience. The quality of the crew was phenomenal.”

Bernthal concurred in an interview in the Irish Times.

“We weren’t in a studio trying to create magical worlds. We were trekking into them. Where we were shooting was so beautiful, you’d think: this is the most beautiful place on Earth. Until the next location: nope, this is the most beautiful place in Earth.

“I’ve had the privilege to shoot in a lot of countries but no place and no people had an effect on me like Ireland. Everyone was kind. I’ve never met an Irishman I didn’t like.”

The film used a lot of local extras that the producer heartily declares as amazing.

“These guys were out there with big beards, long hair, wearing costumes in very physically challenging fights and in very tough conditions. They added a real authentic air to the film, they were phenomenal.”

Buoyed by the publicity of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Pilgrimage is getting a US theatrical release, a rarity for an Irish film.

It will not however be showing in Galway as it is only being released in arthouse cinemas. But it will be available on iTunes and on DVD from July 28.