Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Sublime Insignificant (Film Review) by Giles Watson

The Sublime Insignificant
by Giles Watson

It surprises me how many reviewers are giving this astonishing film only three stars, and I do hope this is not because the film chooses not to dwell on the viciousness of Hypatia's murder: a decision which would have made a cinematic 'spectacle' entirely inappropriate for this most subtle and beautiful of films. For the record, the real Hypatia - a pagan philosopher in fourth century Alexandria who deduced that the earth orbited the sun in an ellipse, and preserved her right to operate as a lecturer by repelling her suitors with a gift of a handkerchief stained with her own menstrual blood – was killed as a witch by fundamentalist Christians who scraped the living flesh from her bones with seashells. It is her life and thought, however, and not the manner of her death, which is the chief subject of this film, and that is as it should be.

The astonishingly realistic recreation of Alexandria is in itself a remarkable cinematic feat, the costumes look entirely authentic, the performances are flawless, and the cinematography - always beautiful - is often thoroughly awe inspiring. Ultimately, however, what makes this film so great is the way in which it puts human beings into perspective (swarming fundamentalists ransacking the agora are likened to ants, and in one of the most inspired shots in cinematic history, Alexandria is viewed from outer space, and is sublime and utterly insignificant all at once) whilst suggesting that human beings are nevertheless capable of reaching the heights of reason, and plumbing the depths of unreason. It is one of the ironies of history that the monstrous 'Saint' Cyril of Alexandria is recognised as a Doctor of the Church, whilst not a single word written by Hypatia has survived.

Much ink will be wasted in coming months in discussion of whether this film deliberately paints Christianity in a bad light. The truth is that no form of religious extremism looks good in this film, and for that reason alone, it ought to be statutory viewing for all people who are convinced that theirs is the only god. Rachel Weisz plays the lead role with such grace and conviction that her refusal of Christian baptism, accompanied by the words “I believe in philosophy” – clunky as they may look on the printed page – becomes one of the most powerful moments in modern cinema.

Forget the lukewarm reviews, and see this film for yourself. Thrown off the scent, perhaps, by publicity over-emphasising the romantic element in the film, reviewers have begun to argue that the plot begins to flag in the second half. This is to miss the point entirely: the film is not a romance; it is an exploration of one woman’s discoveries about our place in the universe, and it is at once humbling, tragic and victorious. I found myself on the edge of tears throughout most of it, entranced by the splendour, wisdom and realism of its vision. The ending was the hardest and the truest thing I have ever seen in a film.

But don't trust me. Make up your own mind. That is what Hypatia would have told you to do.

Author bio:

Giles has been writing poetry and taking photographs for as long as he can remember, but more recently began painting and drawing in order to illustrate his own work. Giles also writes prose essays on natural history and mediaeval visual culture, is an avid walker and amateur naturalist, and has a keen interest in theatre. He has taught English, History, Drama, Sociology and Film. He is currently working on the libretto for a musical of his own. His photography can be viewed at his Flickr stream.

No comments: