21 Jan 2010

Movie Magic: Philosophers, Science and Religion...

... make for a volatile mix!

Well this was quite an interesting film! Very different from the usual fare. Award-winning writer-director Alejandro Amenabar (Tesis, Abre Los Ojos, The Others) does and excellent job of bringing Greco-Roman science and philosophy to life, right at the point in history when it was under attack from the rise of Christendom and fanatic preachers (some of whom are almost worthy of being called jihadists). Not Christianity's proudest moment, the loss of so much ancient knowledge and wisdom, drenched in blood and violence (and sadly this was just the beginning), leading to centuries known as the "dark ages" when everything had to be rediscovered. Has anyone ever wondered how far ahead humanity would be now if there had been no dark ages? If we had built continuously on the teachings of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers instead of burying it all for centuries, only a fraction of which was salvaged, and most of that thanks to Arab scholars? The scientist and humanist inside of me sheds tears to think of all that was lost to supersition and hatred and man's fear of that which he does not understand. And I shudder when I read of certain modern groups speaking in a very similar language of hatred and wilful ignorance and religious fundamentalism.

The place: Alexandria, capital of Roman Egypt, circa 390 AD
The heart: the rare -and much admired- woman philosopher, astronomer and atheist Hypatia (a luminous Rachel Weisz), who teaches her students to use their minds in the city's agora and the surviving texts from famous library in the Serapeum.
The conflict: science and philosophy vs religion, reason vs extremely literal faith personified by the Patriarch Theophilus and later his (highly violent in the film) successor Cyril.

I knew next to nothing about this film going in, other that it was historical fiction, a major production (for Spain, massive budget), by a director who has yet to disappoint me, (there's a great interview with him here about the origins of the movie -laying in a book looking up at the stars and then an awakening curiosity about astronomy- and how he came upon the story of Hypatia and why he chose the title), and with an amazing lead actress. As a fan of the genre (historical fiction), and anything that brings science and philosophy to the forefront, I really liked this movie. I loved the story that was told, the wonderful (and very international) actors who brought the vivid characters to life, the production design, but most of all this amazing woman, Hypatia. As enthralled as I am with strong female historical figures, how did I not know about her?

Report back here! ;o) (particularly you Juliette! I'd love a classical student's take on this)


  1. YAY. So looking forward to this, now I'm wondering if 20 was too low on my list. Oh well. Whatever. I may be seeing it before March, hopefully. Glad it was good.

  2. I'd heard of this, but haven't seen it - I don't think it's ben released here yet.

    Without having seen it - it might be totally wonderful! - I have mixed feelings about this. Rachel Weisz is brilliant and like you I'm shocked I'd never heard of this woman before. Hypatia's murder was clearly an horrific act that demonstrates the dangers of mob mentality.

    Trouble is, I can't help feeling that this film may (and I may be wrong, not having seen it) have a rather excessively strong anti-Christian agenda. Firstly, Hypatia wasn't an atheist, she was a pagan, so her philosophy wasn't cut and dried science=good, religion=bad. Secondly, going by the rather good article on Wikipedia, there was rather a lot more politiking going on here and Hypatia was basically caught up in the middle of it. And finally, yes her murder was awful - so, in my view, was the brutal execution of Perpetua and Felicity in AD 201 during one of the persecutions of Christians. Christians have done some pretty nasty things in the past but they're not the only ones, and yet no one wants to make a film about Perpetua these days.

    I think this looks really good and I could watch Weisz read the phone book, but I have a feeling it would leave me with a sour taste in my mouth if it really pushes the yay!atheism=science (which is a total fallacy, I know a number of scientists who are also religious, they're not mutually exclusive) and boo!religion angle. On the other hand, it would be hard to make a film about something so horrible without pushing that angle! I'll probably catch it on DVD...

  3. Andrew, I really liked it and thought it was very well done, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea (due to the subject matter and some of the violence). Popular reactions in Spain have been mixed, although critically it seems to have been much appreciated and is nominated for quite a few Goyas (including best pic, director, script, soundtrack and actress)

    Juliette, it doesn't so much push the atheism vs religion factor, as the right to question a belief system. There are two key moments about Hypatia's beliefs, one where she's accused of not believing in anything and she replies "I believe in philosophy", and the other where someone asks her to convert to Christianity (in order to save herself) and she says "you believe without asking questions, I can't". It's more a case of blind faith and literal (as in words on the page) faith.

    And yes the Christians do get the most unpleasant side, but it makes it clear that the worst moments of violence were actually started by another group (ie. the pagans attacking the Christians for desecrating a temple, backfired on them) It's more like a case where no one is truly innocent. What gets me (other than Hypatia's destiny) is the loss of knowledge that pretty much crippled civilisation and set things back for centuries thanks to these events (and others round the Empire, particularly the barbarian invasions).

  4. Argh! I wrote a really really long reply and the computer swallowed it!!!

    OK, well, the essence of what I was saying was - if the movie portrays Christianity, or movement within Christianity, as responsible for the decline of philsophy and knowledge, then I think it's inaccurate. Byzantium was Christian and philosophy continued to flourish there (albeit Christian philosophy of course, but in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle) and the loss of knowledge in the medieval period in the west was more to do with attacks from non-literate peoples and loss of technology (candles!) rather than a change in religious feeling. And Stanford U has a very good online article on Byzantine philosophy.

    But since I haven't seen the movie yet, I may still be getting entirely the wrong end of the stick! It looks very good, I will try to catch it as soon as I can.

  5. Ouch! I hate it when the computer does that! :s

    Yeah, I'd kind of forgotten about the Byzantine Empire! I don't know why I've always centred on the decline of Western Rome and the Barbarian invasions... must be the Western European in me ;o)
    You know way more about all this than I do anyway, I haven't studied any history since High School, and the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages are taught way too young. :o(

  6. I have not heard of this movie. Is it new?

  7. Yes and no Nancy.

    It's a Spanish movie (filmed in English, like Amenabar's other big International movie "The Others") that came out here in late September. I believe it's out in most of Europe but hasn't crossed the pond yet. Keep an eye out for it! ;o)

  8. It looks interesting...I wish it were in theaters here!
    And...as a late, off-topic reply, eating black-eyed peas for New Year's is supposed to bring you good luck and/or prosperity (depending on who you talk to). It's much easier than the grapes! I know a lot of people who hate the taste of black-eyed peas, but they get by with just eating a few on New Year's Day!:D

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