Witchhammer Centers Men in a Tale of Women’s Suffering

The fatal flaw in this is that it’s a film about historical suffering that was primarily experienced by women told through the experiences of men. Specifically, a priest who witnesses (and is later himself a victim of) an escalating series of Inquisition trials.

The structure of the film is a bit repetitive, but is so by design. You see the pattern of women accused, tortured, and eventually confessing under that torture so many times. Anyone who pipes up with “hey maybe torture isn’t the best way to get the truth, bro” is either dismissed or presumed to be guilty by association. There are at least three separate scenes of the Inquisitors shrugging off complaints that confessions produced by torture are unreliable with “it’s the usual procedure” or something of the like.

There are a few particularly powerful moments of the film, not the least of which is the moment when three “confessed” witches first see the stakes they are to be burned at (a reveal the audience experiences along with them as the camera pans to reveal the stakes to us simultaneously) and one of them shrieks in horror. It is one of the most genuine-sounding horrified reactions I’ve ever heard, and combined with the editing made it uncomfortably effective at producing empathy.

The film also takes great pains to show the hypocrisy of those who hold this power. The whole thing starts when the Lady who owns the estate is dining in opulence with her ecclesiastical advisors and they question a destitute woman who stole a communion wafer to feed to a cow that isn’t producing any milk. The point that these well-fed nobles are sitting in judgment of a woman on the verge of starvation is quite unsubtle, but it’s effective nonetheless. And it parallels later scenes of the Inquisitor enjoying a hearty feast after executing three innocent women that, I’m not making this up, is notable for a several minutes-long series of penis jokes.

Witchhammer is a flawed film, for sure, but it’s one that does a pretty damn good job of making its point in spite of those flaws. It’s perhaps best represented by the priest’s rebuke to the inquisitor, “Your commission has power, but power and truth are two different things.” Much like the film as a whole, the line is pretty on the nose, but that doesn’t stop it from ringing true.



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