“You do not question your beliefs, you cannot. I must.”
Watching this film so quickly after, what I had assumed would be the very different Fog of War was interesting and also rather fitting. Wheras that film surmised and exemplified everything about modern warfare, this does the same for classical combat; though at their heart they are very much the same and driven by the same forces. McNamara’s (The subject of Fog of War) second rule of military command was as follows: ‘Rationality will not save us’; and this concept – which he used to illustrate how two sane men could through the pressures of conflict do something completely crazy like end the world – is perfectly illustrated here in a much more literal manner.
This idea lays in many ways at the centre of the film’s orbit; depicting as it does the bloody illogicality of war between brothers as one side of a city rises up to cull the others, the way in which religion gives these people ‘the right’ to enact such slaughter in the face of reason and the fall of civilization’s bastion of knowledge and logic, the Library of Alexandria, underneath the trampling hooves of these marauding masses. It is then an entrance into a genre that had previously been long abandoned, the historical epic, but despite the spectacular sets and special effects it is very much an intimate story of three beings, each equally alike and unlike, who are caught in the midst of this mammoth-esque context.
It would be reductive to say that the story is driven by a love triangle, because those words conjure up an image that simply doesn’t sync with what it is that this film delivers. Yes it is the love of the same woman that connects these otherwise oppositional men but their love stems from their character, it does not define it. Hypatia also makes it very clear early on that she has no interest in either of them, liberating herself from both patriarchic rule and narrative convention alike. Though this means that the film cannot mine the ‘Will They or Won’t They’ vein, these relationships still manage to deliver a great number of dramatic moments despite – or perhaps because of – their impotence.
The triumvirate also play an important part in the films thematic structure, with each of their roles and relationships also existing on a parabolic level. Now, in case you were wondering, no the film is not a parable about the Middle-East like so many other contemporary artworks; it is not so small-minded, it deals with its expansive themes of War, Science and Religion in a broad sense, as befits them. If you choose to apply its questions and assumptions to the current conflict, as they are very much appropriate, then that is up to you; the values though will still exist come the next war and the next war and if we’re lucky the war after that.
‘What are these values?’ you ask, ‘And what then does the film have to say?’ Well it was to me a look at the ways in which those who truly seek to understand our universe are so drastically stifled, both directly and in-directly, by those who claim to have already closed the case; Religious certainty as a stonewall to scientific curiosity, with war often being the physical embodiment of that dreaded obstacle. It may betray my objectivity to reveal that I found myself thinking this during the film: ‘Christians against knowledge? Now I really know that war never changes.’ Thankfully though the film itself is much more balanced and never draws conclusions against any of the involved faiths; it is instead interested more in what makes us as a species so willing to buy into belief at all than who individually is to blame. These wars all seem to stem from the friction between two differing belief systems existing together in one setting, a situation that causes people to place such blame on their opposition; this is an unfortunate occurrence but a common one.
The real tragedy of this though is that Science is not only the victim of but in many ways the only innocent involved in these conflicts, as it is involved only so much as it is forced to be. Science is a self-reliant system, one that is quite happy to exist on its own and one that is, as the aforementioned quote suggests, quite happy to question itself and be questioned by others. So it is that you never see such wars break out over conflicting thesii; Science adapts where religion atrophies.
I talk in this way about Science, as if it were a person, because in regards to this film she is. Hypatia acts very much as a personification of philosophy and her story is that of science. Her refuting of the two suitors is the same as Science’s inability to choose between two feuding faiths; she is objective and impartial, her truth is what is and not what she wants to hear. In the same way her two suitors are shown to be metaphorical representations of religion, though not in any literal sense, one is not simply a Pagan and the other a Christian. Instead they represent the different emotional mentalities present in the purchase of faith; confusion, bargaining, peer pressure, heritage, ostracism, zealotry and, occasionally, actual belief. It is a stunningly complex representation and a deftly handled one at that, providing the perfect ratio of evidence to empty space.
Though this may all sound very heady I can assure you that the film is not pretentious nor cerebral. It manages to merge these titanous themes, soaring scope (quite literally zooming in and out of the atmosphere between many shots), historical contexts and intimate character beats together with a certain grace and precision rarely seen in today’s cinema (and in a much more effective way than say Tree of Life did). When weaved together just so the elements combine to form an emotional, educational and all-together enriching experience that I would definitely recommend.