May 02, 2010


The brief for this film was simple. Take some big events: try for as big an event as possible, the downfall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, the beginnings of European anti-semitism, the demise of ancient philosophy and the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. Interweave those events with the life of the only female philosopher we know from antiquity- Hypatia of Alexandria- who was slaughtered brutally in the streets by a mob of Christians possibly monks. There you have it, Mr Film Executive, a film that is undeniably significant, undeniably interesting and undeniably important as an allegory for our time. It doesn't take long to find Christians behaving in an exceedingly unchristian way in the modern world, nor does it take an incredibly long time to work out that the anti-intellectualism of the mobs of Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria also have their counterparts in the modern world.

This is a film about fanaticism. A film about fanaticism both Christian and pagan. The pagan fanatics are led by their own priest of Serapis and attack the Christians for an insult to their statues (interestingly far from being an anti-Christian film, I suspect that this pagan priority in attacks is untrue- by the time that Hypatia was alive it was the Christians rather than the pagans who were the aggressors). The pagan fanaticism is the fanaticism of those born to lose: it leads to disaster for the pagans. The first part of the film concentrates on that disaster, as fanaticism as an unwise political choice for a minority. The second part concentrates on the consequence as the Christians led by Cyril persecute first the pagans and then the Jews, driving them out of the city with violence and rage- a process that culminates with the humiliation of the prefect (Orestes, a pupil of Hypatia) and the execution of Hypatia herself.

Much of this is entirely right- Christians were this horrible to others within the Roman Empire: this needs to be said to pre-empt any charge that this film defames ancient Christianity, rest assured that it does not. (Incidentally the ignorance of any idiot that claims the film is about the Catholic church, when Alexandria was never Catholic, never acknowledged the doctrine of the primacy of Rome and the Catholic church was created centuries later, reveals more about the critic than the film). The response of these Christian critics merely demonstrates how little the mentality of some Christians has moved since the ancient world. In some senses the film makes an ironic commentary upon Christianity, in a moving scene a slave boy is converted by seeing the bishop of Alexandria, Theophilius (more could have been made of the fact that he was the uncle of his successor Cyril) read out the sermon on the mount. I do not know if the film makers meant this, but throughout the film those words echoed in my mind, blessed are the meek etc, and the contrast with the behaviour of the clergy and believers on the screen, not to mention the ostentatious ceremonies with which they prayed is stunning. Christianity in general here is not present as Christianity qua Christianity- but as the behaviour of Christians. It is that that the director makes clear has often been immoral, violent, persecutory- he gets the tone of mockery right (some of the insults against the pagan Gods not being able to walk around and save their believers could come straight from Augustine). One odd point struck me: there are moments in the film where some of the Christian characters could make a theological argument against others, but do not use them. What the film demonstrates is how the militant monks embodied Gibbon's aphorism about the Roman Empire, they were the barbarism and religion that brought civilisation crashing down.

When we look at that civilisation though, that is where the film makes some historical errors. I don't want to dwell on them- so lets start with what I admired. I admired the skill with which the director and cast recreated pagan ritual: the statues were possibly even more impressive than those on the screen but they have the look right. There is one wonderful early scene in which you see the streets of Alexandria littered with statues of gods and goddesses: thinking about it that presence of statues is probably one of the biggest changes between an iconophile paganism and an iconoclastic (to different extents) Christian and Islamic religion. They get the shape of the library right, it is what I imagine the ancient library to have looked like, a pentagon with corridors leading off containing scroll after scroll. They get the sense that religion and philosophy were related, knowledge was mystical by the late empire. So Hypatia talks about the perfection of the circle. If the film has a sin, it is to try and turn Hypatia slowly into a rationalist modern, even having her anticipate Kepler's insight about the planets: that is a pity because it makes her less than she was. She was a teacher but not a modern teacher of despiritualised science: rather she was a teacher of mystical mathematical truths. Furthermore we should see her as a moral teacher, when she presents a suitor with a hankerchief containing her menstrual blood and asks him where the beauty is, she was making a point about the corruption of the body. If the film gets the fanatical strangeness of the Christians right, it makes Hypatia too modern and thus by implication makes paganism too modern.

Another flaw in the film which diminishes its impact is its pace. It is incredibly slow. This means that it is unrealistic. If you talk to someone excited by something, they talk quickly, they pause to think about what they have said, they get enthusiastic about ideas and concepts. In this film everyone talks slowly and they don't talk enough. We don't need inspiring music to tell us that Hypatia was a great thinker- she definitely was not a scientist- we need to hear her. Furthermore at points the film concentrates emotionally on characters without showing us their character. I can use Hypatia's father to explain what I mean: we see Hypatia express grief about him but we see very few indications (bar his announcement that her independence is more valuable than marriage) of the relationship between father and daughter. His scenes flash by- a couple of sentences and they are done. This doesn't give us much of an insight into him- but it is true for so many characters and so many ideas, they get a sentence and we move on to the next thing. The film is about the right length but the number of words could rise and the amount of music fall.

Having said all of the above: the film makes a powerful point. Its about fanaticism, possibly about religion too and the way it encourages fanaticism. The strongest impression I was left with, coming out of the movie, was the contradiction between Christian teaching and the behaviour of many Christians. There is one amusing theological point at which a Christian says to another that slaughtering the Jews is right, to forgive, he argues, is Christlike and therefore blasphemous. Plenty of Christians have done an immense amount of good in their time on earth, but plenty of others have lived by the maxim that showing the other cheek, leaving judgement to God and refusing to cast the first stone were declared by Christ for him alone and do not bind them. In that sense the director has created a film in the spirit of Matthew 20:16- he unlike Dosteovsky with the Grand Inquisitor does not draw out the final irony, but it is lurking in the background of his piece.


Tim O'Neill said...

Unfortunately the movie's "powerful point" is based mainly on distortions of the relevant history behind the story: see for details.

Hypatia also wasn't "the only female philosopher we know from antiquity". Not only were there several others but another pagan female philosopher was active in Alexandria a generation after Hypatia - Aedesia. Yet she wasn't torn apart by Christian mobs, which should give anyone who buys this movie's message that Hypatia was a martyr for science and reason some pause (hint - she was actually murdered for her *politics*).

And the idea that the destruction of the Serapeum was a revenge attack in response to pagan zealots killing Christians is actually *precisely* what happened. If anything, the movie downplays this aspect and even invents an initial Christian atrocity (where the pagan apologist is thrown into a fire).

It's a good idea not to get your understanding of history from movies.

Gracchi said...

Tim. Lets start with the mistake I made, fair enough there were other classical female philosophers.

On to the rest of your comment. We don't know and you don't know why Hypatia was killed. We know she was killed by a Christian mob and if you think that religion and politics were different things in societies prior to the modern go and read some history yourself.

THe film invents details. Its telling a story. The history is actually fairly incomplete. From memory of Maria Dzielska's work on Hypatia we know much less than we should about what happened in that period in Alexandria. Many of the tales about Hypatia are mythic rather than real.

As to the separation of religion and politics, I think you are too much of a modernist there. That separation is something we all know- but is not neccessarily something previous centuries shared.

Tim O'Neill said...

We don't know and you don't know why Hypatia was killed.

We don't? So you're simply going to ignore our most detailed contemporary source, Socrates Scholasticus, who tells us why she was murdered? Why?

Here's what he says. After praising Hypatia's wisdom and learning (and remember that Socrates was a Christian) he turns to her murder:

Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed.

He describes the political struggle for dominance between Cyril and Orestes, how Orestes tortured a follower of Cyril's to death and how Hypatia was seized by some of Cyril's faction and murdered in revenge. That's it.

There's nothing there about how she was killed for her learning (he says she was killed despite the wide renown she had for that , with Christians and pagans and Jews). There's nothing about religion being a motivating factor either. She was killed because she was part of the opposing political faction.

I know that doesn't make for a suitably dramatic movie with a heavy-handed anti-fundamentalist theme. But we do know why she was killed. So we can't just decide it was due to religion, because THE EVIDENCE simply doesn't support that.

It's fantasy. I'm an atheist and a rationalist. I deal with evidence. Give that a try.