During intermission of a play on an ancient stage in 300 A.D. Alexandria, a young philosophy student suddenly stands up before the crowd. Pledging his love and devotion to his beautiful philosophy professor, he begins to play a kind of ancient recorder in her honor. As the music pours out, the camera pulls back up into the cosmos, suddenly viewing the scene from far above earth’s orbit, where we can still faintly hear the doleful melody. Later on, there is a similar return to the heavenly perspective, only this time we can hear the piteous moaning of Jews as they are beaten, stoned and slaughtered by a wild group of angered Christian fanatics
This viewpoint hovering over the earth is a frequent device in Alejandro Amenábar’s film, which follows the tragic story of the student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), his beguiling philosophy teacher, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), her former slave-turned-Christian revolutionary, Davus (Max Minghella), and the oncoming advent of Christianity, as it tears down and defiles all that which came before it. And make no mistake, in the words of a former Christian president of ours, Christianity is portrayed as the ugly and overreaching movement of the time, eventually destroying the irreplaceable Alexandria Library and its many, many writings and documents, en route to trying to overthrow paganism, Judaism and the Roman army. Indeed, there is, perhaps, no more damning detail than their rapturous singing of “Hallelujah” as the library’s precious documents are burned to ashes around them.
As Hypatia, Weisz, one of the few actresses of her generation able to believably portray an intellectual character, is effervescent, alive and beguiling as she seeks to solve the riddle of the orbits of the Earth and other planets around the sun. The film as a whole suffers from an overly heavy schema taking on as it does, science, religion, love, paganism, and martyrdom, taking on more than its confines can really contain as constructed, but despite its tilted scale and ambitiousness, it allows for just enough feel and nuance — mostly from Weisz — to rise above its more obvious agenda.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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