Agora

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 07:18 pm
jenett: Big and Little Dipper constellations on a blue watercolor background (Default)
[personal profile] jenett
I have just gotten home from seeing it (in Minneapolis, it is playing at the Uptown Theatre this week. Maybe not beyond that.)

Now, one of the problems with being me - or rather, with having my head full of a wide range of library history, clothing history, dye history, religious and theological history, architectural history, and, well, pretty much any other history one might pick up, is that going to see historically set movies can be an exercise in frustration.

This film, delightedly, gets *very* much of that right.

The story is ... well, okay, it bills itself as historical fiction, which is right, because historically, there's not a whole lot we know about Hypatia of Alexandria. That she existed, that she was a widely respected astronomer and philosopher, widely respected among her male peers at a time when women just Didn't Do That In Public. That there are a couple of legends about her which persist. That she was killed in inter-religious violence in the city, arguably. But that none of her work survived. We know that the prefect of Alexandria (Orestes) publically respected her wisdom.

But the central astronomical conceit of the movie - the development of the heliocentric model - is not historically attributed to her (the movie treats it appropriately, given that.) The details of her friendship with Orestes, ditto.

There's a lot of glorious ambiguity, and parallels of the fragility of knowledge, and the fragility of friendships, and the challenges of being a good person in a complex world. It is, as the director says, a film about the dangers of fanaticism, far more than being a film about the errors of any one particular group.

And it's a movie about what we do with knowledge, what we value about it, about whether we continue asking questions to the last, or whether we sit on what we believe and hope it will sustain us through the hard times. There are reasons that I have honored Hypatia as my ancestor-of-profession for a number of years now: there are always more questions, and I want always to continue to ask them. No one in this movie is a shining example of perfection - even Hypatia has her moments of cruelty and of blindness to the reality of her world. But the questions - the need to question - continues.

But there's also a lot of details that are just plain right, but without yelling their rightness.

There's the Pagan statues in the square, showing Serapis, Minerva, and Anubis - not just one culture, but the mingling of the Hellenic-Kemetic-Roman syncreticism of Alexandria. (The Christian churches also have appropriate details for the time period, but I find those less interesting.)

There's a lot of attention - not just in the extras, but in the main cast and minor roles - to have a huge range of skin tone, facial structure, and pretty much every other ethnic marker. Of all the details that make us believe that this is the great port city of Northern Africa, a meeting place of the Mediterranean with all that implies.

There's the fact that I could watch the movie and go "Yes, that's the right red-purple for post-Tyrian purple alternatives, for the Roman dignitaries." and "Oh, that *is* the right shade of achievable green for the period" and "Yes, that's a realistic blue" and so on and so forth. Very pleasing.

There's the little wax tabs on the ends of the scrolls indicating what scroll is which: a little historical tidbit that most people don't know. And there's the moment when they're reading from the New Testament, and it's a codex, rather than a scroll (also quite appropriate: the spread of the codex - the book - and the spread of Christianity are closely linked.) There are the moments of scrolls being tossed across and destroyed - but not tearing, because of course, they are either parchment or papyrus, neither of which tear readily.

There are the animals and the birds - local to the area (well, I had a moment with both the sheep and the horses, but I think they're both arguable.) But there's a glorious shot of what must be an ibis at one point.

And there's the fact of the Parabalani - the fanatics who start a great deal of destruction and misery, but who are also seen ministering to the poor, and tending to the dead (their historical origin.) They do have the one serious historical difference I had to peer at - they all wear very black black, which is historically a very difficult and expensive color to dye. But for cinematic reasons, it works, and better than muddy very dark browns, which would have been more likely, I think.

And interestingly enough, before distribution, the distribution company screened it at the Vatican, and they had no complaints - and made a few suggestions to improve several scenes. I like that. (http://www.scottholleran.com/interviews/alejandro-amenabar.htm mentions this, and has some other interesting bits from an interview with the director.)

Now, there is one interesting gender note here. This movie manages, despite having a female protagonist who is very firmly not romantically attached, to fail the Bechdel test, because there are no other women with speaking roles in the movie. (There are plenty in crowd scenes, and a few female slaves that she does not interact with directly.) That said, Hypatia's comfort with being female is very clearly conflicted: she refers to her fellow scholars and herself among them as brothers (i.e. "We are all brothers", not "You are my brothers"), and she is very clearly not happy with a female role in that society, and solves it by basically not seeing herself as female except in the most basic and external ways. Including menstruation, which is one of the legends about her that's continued in various sources.)

And yet, she is reliably referred to as "Lady" in a way that - if you know the Greek of the time - has an undertone of Kyria underneath all of it, the Lady set apart, separate, distinct, one-of-us-and-yet-different, the term used to one you respect, one who you see as above you in some way, whether as teacher or as mistress of the house or something else of the kind. Those of you familiar with some forms of Christianity will know the masculine of that: Kyrie, used to refer to Jesus. The 'Lady' in its repetition takes on a lot of that echo for me.

In short (or not so short) a very excellent movie, highly recommended. I should note that there's a fair bit of violence, though it mostly avoids being as gore-driven as historical events make it. (There are a lot of cut-aways and after-effects of injuries rather than moment-of-where-you-see-everything.) There's also one scene that may make anyone who's had a stalker deeply uncomfortable, and one scene of very uncomfortable sexual aggression: both have consequences in the story that are resolved in ways consistent with the story.'

Finally, I add three links for people interested in digging into the history, from author Faith Justice, who's written a novel about Hypatia, and therefore dug into the history in great detail. Part 1 is about some of the myths and legends that appear in the movie, Part 2 is about the historical background, and Part 3 is about the individuals mentioned by name in the movie.

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 02:35 am (UTC)
ilyena_sylph: picture of Labyrinth!faerie with 'careful, i bite' as text (Default)
From: [personal profile] ilyena_sylph
Thank you for the rec!

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)
makamu: (smiling by buh_22)
From: [personal profile] makamu
Thank you for the intelligent and interesting review. I will definitely get this once it comes out on DVD here in Germany :)

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
bunny_m: (Ami Geek)
From: [personal profile] bunny_m
After such a glowing recommendation, how can I resist?

('Specially from a Librarian? I mean, really!)

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
laughingrat: A detail of leaping rats from an original movie poster for the first film of Nosferatu (Default)
From: [personal profile] laughingrat
Cool! I had no idea about this movie.

(no subject)

Date: Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 02:35 am (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
Sounds like someone decided to get a movie right, instead of slap-dashing names and things on top of whatever script couldn't get sold on its own merits. We'll probably wait for the media release, but I'll make a note of it for when it arrives.

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hexeengel.livejournal.com
Totally OT, but the 10th should be fine. Is there a time in mind? :)

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 02:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hexeengel.livejournal.com
1sh would work :) Purple Onion, or did you have elsewhere in mind?

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 04:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hexeengel.livejournal.com
Sounds great, see you then! :D

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 01:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] catherineldf.livejournal.com
I've been going back and forth on whether or not to see this one - how grim is the ending? I know what happened historically, I'm just down a few hit points at the moment and not up for serious bloodshed.

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 01:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brock-tn.livejournal.com
It is probably going to wind up as being one of the grossly under-appreciated movies of this decade.

And I still don't think I would call it a "pagan" film, even though it is a film that I think all modern pagans ought to see. Unfortunately, I think too many of them may take the wrong lesson from it.

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 05:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] suzanne.livejournal.com
Ohhh, thanks for the write up, this sounds awesome.

suzanne

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 05:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] suzanne.livejournal.com
And it's showing in Palo Alto this week, great timing!

suzanne

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brock-tn.livejournal.com
It is an utterly stunning film on a number of levels. And it is a troubling film, in that it does not dumb down or trivialize the issues with which it desls for the sake of keeping the audience comfortable. About the only compromise that Amenabar (who both wrote the script and directed,) has made is that he spares his audience the image of Hypatia being flayed alive by a mob.

If you choose to see this film, you will NOT leave the thater without having been deeply moved.

(no subject)

Date: Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] srain.livejournal.com
I really want to see this film as well! I'm so excited it's in town now. I'm really glad to read your thoughts on it. It was very insightful. Even though it's been well reviewed, these sorts of films still make me nervous so thank you!
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