A historical drama set in Roman Egypt, concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hope of pursuing freedom while falling in love with his mistress, the philosophy and mathematics professor Hypatia of Alexandria.
Alexandria, 391 AD: Hypatia teaches astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Her student Orestes is in love with her, as is Davus, her personal slave. As the city's Christians, led by Ammonius and Cyril, gain political power, the institutions of learning may crumble along with the governance of slavery. Jump ahead 20 years: Orestes, the city's prefect, has an uneasy peace with the Christians, led by Cyril. A group from the newly empowered Christians has now taken to enforce their cultural hegemony zealously; first they see the Jews as their obstacle, then nonbelievers. Hypatia has no interest in faith; she's concerned about the movement of celestial bodies and "the brotherhood of all". Although her former slave doesn't see it that way.Written by
I was familiar with the Hypatia story because a certain category of people in my native country choose to present here as a martyr from a bygone golden age of reason, rapidly receding before the encompassing waves of Cristian barbarity and obscurantism. I think in general this is also the view this movie takes.
The character of Hypatia is presented as logical, brilliant, prudent with thirst for learning for it's own sake. The only problem that a modern sensibility could find with her is her attitude towards slaves, which seem to reflect the ideas of the educated elite of the times(of antiquity in general because even people of the calibre of Aristotle shared such conceptions). Otherwise she is perfect.
In a very imperfect world one must note, because the society she lives in is convulsed by civil strife and feuds between Christians, Pagans and Jews.As the movie progresses they eventually become Christian and Jews because Pagans convert to Christianity because of the attitudes of imperial authority and political expediency. Although this is not fully explained, how a very powerful pagan element becomes impotent in the second half of the movie. I think the scenario is problematic there.
Also the beliefs of the group in which Hypatia belongs are not really clarified. There were pagan, believers of the aegypian Gods(there is a statue of Serapis), of Greek Gods of Roman Gods or just agnostic rationalists(as Hypatia seems to be) belonging to a pagan upper class environment? On the other side, the Christian, the "Parabalanoi" whose existence I have not verified as a social group or lay monastic order or something in between, are presented as a bunch of idiotic thugs, the equivalent of modern hooligans with a religious veneer, keen to kill, pillage and rape(although this is hinted rather discreetly)supposedly in the name of Jesus.
The leader of the Christians Cyril-a historical personage who became a saint, as the final titles of the movie correctly state, is portrayed as a power-hungry(there is scene in which he avidly takes the bishop's ring from the hand of his dead predecessor), manipulative bigot. His aim is to become master of Alexandria and Christianity is his tool, while the Prefect-the political authority- stands in his way.The Prefect, being a former student of Hypatia is advised by her, thus she earns the enmity of Cyril- with fatal results. His portrayal matches with a sketch of him by Bertrand Russell in "History of Western Philosophy":"St Cyril, the advocate of unity, was a man of fanatical zeal. He used his position as patriarch to incite pogroms against the very large Jewish colony in Alexandria. His chief claim to fame is the lynching of Hypatia, a distinguished lady who, in an age of bigotry, adhered to the Neoplatonic philosophy and devoted her talents to mathematics." The way he is in the movie seems inspired by this passage, as if the makers of the movie were based on that. Nevertheless it was effective since they made the viewers find despicable a man dead by 1.600 years.
There is only one scene where the Christian religion is presented with some sympathy and that is where the slave(who is secretly in love with his mistress Hypatia) is convinced to exercise the virtue of charity, by an otherwise negatively portrayed zealot(Ammonius), through giving food(bread)to the poor, who are many and needy. It is a moving scene and the sole in movie akin to present Christianity in a positive light.
Religious struggle is presented as a power struggle, which may be correct when one leaves the realm of individual conscience and enters the public arena. Pagans, Christians and Jews(both people and leaders) are equally bad, the worse being the Christian zealots "Parabolani", to which a freed slave of Hypatia now belongs. Orestes, the Prefect, a former student of Hypatia, is better as a character than Cyril or Synesius, another student of Hypatia, now a high-class Church dignitary.(One though is left with the impression that Hypatia operated the Harvard of her times!) The end of the movie, presents a view of events censored compared to the one we have from historical sources, as to what exactly happened to Hypatia.
I think that the actress playing Hypatia is fine and convincing as a free spirit in an age of bigotry and also good is the performance of her two unconsummated would-be-lovers the aristocrat and latter Prefect Orestes and the slave and latter Christian zealot, Davus. The actor playing Cyril conveys the aura of sliminess and bigotry of a religious power-player.
Scenery and costumes are superb to watch but I do not know enough about Alexandrian geography and clothing habits to vouch for their historical accuracy.
It is a movie worth seen although it leaves a bitter taste in the end and tries to say and mix too many and too weighty matters in the brief span of a cinematic exhibition.
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