Monday, April 25, 2011

History in film?

It's been a while since I saw a film I felt like recommending to anyone. Partly because great films seem to be fewer and further between these days but also when a great film wins an award, it does it's own recommending and I don't feel any compunction to recommend it on my blog. But this last weekend we saw a film that captured my imagination and I decided it was worthy of a little additional publicity and since it's no longer in theaters, you can even get it from your local library (as did I) and spend your (saved) money on some lovely treats to enhance your viewing pleasure (like a bottle of champagne!... I highly recommend a bottle of Beringer White Zinfindel! It's on the sweet side as are all white Zins but it's Pink and reminds me of Cary Grant!... ahem) But back to our film...
We find ourselves swept back into time.... 391 A.D. to be Egypt.... but to be more specific: Alexandria. On a stairway of the library a woman, Hypatia, is teaching her male students about philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. They discuss and debate the knowns and vast unknowns until one student finally says, "Why do we question what the Lord himself ordains?" The question dangles and is left unanswered... at the moment. Later Hypatia herself answers as she is speaking to her friend Synesius, "You don't question what you believe, or cannot. I must." The film quickly moves on from the teachings of the teacher to the religious factions in the city which as as interrelated as the politics and religion are today. The pagans attack the christians and the christians fight back. Political lines have been drawn and the stronger group of Christians prevail with Roman backing. Later, the christians attack the jews,  but the christians are the ruling class so little justice is found when the jews ask for help when they are initially attacked, so the jews fight back All of this discontent causes the church's leader to cast his eye upon Hypatia. In his view she represents all that is evil among the pagans. She will not be baptized and she continues to cause unrest among the pagans. SPOILER ALERT: (The ending of the movie is coming up here) Thus it is determined that the woman will die and in ancient times, death will not come easy. Just as she is about to be stoned, however, a former slave who had also fallen in love with her suffocates her in a mercy killing so that the stones fall on an already dead body and the torture is circumvented without the torturer's knowledge (otherwise they might have come after the slave). 

Much appears to have been made of the meandering away from history on the part of the film's director Alejandro Amenabar and on this point I would like to say, "Well, duh..." Making an historically accurate film for anyone in the film industry would take... well... RESEARCH! And for those who go to a film thinking they are getting an historically accurate film? Who are you kidding? It just isn't happening! Those of you who expect historical accuracy in film are perhaps more naive than those who expect honesty in politics. But by and large this film does a great job of capturing the era if the not exact moment. There was a woman named Hypatia who lived during this period and she was killed by a christian mob at the time. She was actually drug through the street and then burned and perhaps worse by historical accounts and there was no romantic coming to the rescue slave to suffocate her and keep her from experiencing the horrible morass that was her death. No her death at the hands of the angry christian mobs was as ugly as any experienced in history- including Henry the 8th's wives!  

A forty-year-old Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia beautifully and is at least close to the ancient scholar's reported age of 45 (although she may have been as old as 65). Her character is strong and intellectual and wonders about the universe around her. As her world changes she is enthralled with how the earth revolves around the sun- sometimes closer other times further away. She is not a stereotypical female even by today's stereotypes! If Hollywood had even touched this film (and they never would have!), Hypatia would have been played by a twenty-something starlet who slept with all of her students and was finally killed by the pagans for turning Christian.There are several other historical inaccuracies which you can read about here but by and large the film's errors are far outweighed by the good. No particular group comes off in a terribly favorable light and viewers get a peak into the origins of religious animosities that continue on today. Not a politically correct film by any means, but one that shines a light into the darkness of modern film for movie lovers everywhere.


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