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Another film with church history?

Peter Chattaway's picked up on a film that’s just the kind this blog loves to sink its teeth into, one that promises God-talk and touches on Church history. The project currently has Rachel Weisz on board and is as of yet untitled. Chattaway quotes the Hollywood Reporter’s synopsis:

A historical drama set in early Egypt, it concerns a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, a female philosophy professor and atheist.

Weisz will play Hypatia, the Alexandrian professor.

Barhom -- one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film "Paradise Now" who also stole scenes from the American stars in Universal's "The Kingdom" -- is playing a zealous Christian monk named Ammonius. Isaac, who played Joseph in New Line's "The Nativity Story" and appears in Steven Soderbergh's "Guerilla," is set as Orestes, who has an unrequited love for Hypatia.

Chattaway’s already dug up a lot of the historical background on Hypatia and Orestes and came up with some interesting stuff. Historically (and very basically), there’s a conflict in early 5th
Century Alexandria between Orestes (the Prefect of Alexandria and, by accounts I’ve read so far, a Christian) and Cyril (Pope of Alexandria, a ruling position in the Church, and canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church). Hypatia is a well-respected teacher who’s perceived by some factions of Christians as the source of conflict between Cyril and Orestes (with whom Hypatia is often associated) and ends up brutally murdered by a mob of them.

With my interest piqued, I couldn’t help myself and started digging for more information. One of the first things I discovered is that this historical story is fat-full of political and religious intrigue. It’s a complex and volatile time in both political and religious history. Chattaway’s already highlighted a lot of this, but here’s a bit more. According to the Wikipedia entry for Cyril (without whom, as Chattaway points out, this story would be very difficult to tell), this was a time of “turmoil and (frequently violent) conflict between the cosmopolitan city's pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants.” Here’s a taste of the conflict (that also fills out some of the storyline involving Orestes and Hypatia):

Cyril . . . moved against the Jews and demanded that they be removed from the city. Orestes, prefect of the city, refused but Cyril led a mob of Christians against the Jews in the city, plundering and destroying the synagogues, as well as killing Orestes. According to some historians, all Jews were expelled from Alexandria, while others consider this an exaggeration and that only a portion of the local Jewish population was expelled.

Some of the tensions between Jews and Christians was prompted by a slaughter of Christians at the hands of Alexandrian Jews who, after instigating the death of monk Hierax, lured Christians in the streets at night claiming that the church was on fire.

During his conflict with Orestes, Cyril was also involved in the murder of the female mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was a frequent guest of Orestes'.

Newer studies show Hypatia's death as the result of a struggle between two Christian factions, the moderate Orestes, supported by Hypatia, and the more rigid Cyril. According to lexicographer William Smith,

“She was accused of too much familiarity with Orestes, prefect of Alexandria, and the charge spread among the clergy, who took up the notion that she interrupted the friendship of Orestes with their archbishop, Cyril.”

Others contend that neither the riots nor the murder of Hypatia can rightly be attributed to Cyril. In the case of the riots, he had intended only to lead a delegation to the Jews, but he lost control of the situation; and in the murder of Hypatia, a group of his followers acted on their own initiative without consulting him. As John Anthony McGuckin puts it,

“At this time Cyril is revealed as at the head of dangerously volatile forces: at their head, but not always in command of them.”
Besides the conflicts between religions, it also appears that this was a time of heated and deadly internal theological debate and conflict within the Early Church. According to Wikipedia, one of Cyril’s first acts was to close the churches of the Novatians, who were considered heretics and claimed “not to be participants in the lax practices of the Catholics by which they believed the Catholic church to have been corrupted. They went so far as to rebaptize their converts.” There was also considerable debate at the time about how to view Jesus divinity and humanity, the status of Mary, and a major conflict “between the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of ecclesiastical reflection, piety, and discourse.”

So far, the film’s rather brief plot synopsis seems basically in step with history, but I’m a bit confused when it comes to Hypatia. The filmmakers describe her as an atheist, and Wikipedia’s entry about her does indicate she actively “discouraged mysticism” in favor of logic and mathematics. However, Wikipedia also says Hypatia was a “neoplatonist,” which doesn’t exactly gel with atheism. Atheism is “the position that either affirms the nonexistence of gods or rejects theism” whereas (according to Wikipedia) neoplatonism “is generally a religious philosophy”:

Neoplatonism is a form of idealistic monism (also called theistic monism) and combines elements of Polytheism (see Monistic-polytheism). Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable and transcendent One, from which emanated the rest of the universe. . . .”
Now, I’m not an expert in the field, so it could very well be that Hypatia rejected the philosophy’s tenet of a “One.” It does catch my attention, though (as it seems to have one of Chattaway's commentors).

For what it’s worth, neoplatonism is a philosophy that was part of the Alexandrian school mentioned a few paragraphs ago as well as one with which Early Church thinkers (like Augustine and Origen) dialogued. Apparently, Christians were among those that sought out Hypatia and her tutorship (including Orestes). I have only a scant knowledge of Plato, but I can see the attraction—indeed, I think Plato would have fit right in with those from whom in Acts 17 Paul quoted on Mars Hill (those whom he indicates captured slices of truth but lacked ultimate revelation). While the biblical worldview breaks from Plato’s philosophy (as well as neoplatonism) in irreconcilable and noteworthy ways, there are a significant number of points with which to dialogue. (And with this history of Christianity’s dialogue with neoplatonism, is there irony in the filmmakers’ choice in naming the antagonist monk “Ammonius,” the name of both the teacher of Plotinus, the founder of neoplatonism, as well as a 5th century Alexandrian neoplatonist philosopher?)

Now, against this complex background of political and religious turmoil and intrigue are set at least two, possibly four, characters who are Christians (or claim to be): the slave, the monk, Cyril, and Orestes (I’m not completely clear as to whether or not the filmmakers are including Prefect Orestes as a main character or if they are rewriting him into the slave). If the film is faithful to what we know of history, we could see these characters struggle with some faith-related issues—not the least of which are the issues facing the Early Church at this stage of history. At this point, the Early Church is very different in structure and power from the New Testament church. Many of the Early Church’s struggles (and, quite frankly, many of the struggles facing the Church today) seem to stem from its development into an institutional structure now walking the halls of state (and even challenging it for political power) instead of existing on the margins, as did Jesus and the New Testament church. That’s not to say that the New Testament church didn’t have its problems, but adding in troubles associated with institutionalism, political power and hierarchical structure adds a great deal more problems and issues to the mix.

But more than that, this story invites an authentic exploration of what it’s like to follow Jesus in real life—in a diverse society, under oppression and in freedom, in a secular system as well religious institutions. The historical story has all these elements, so it follows the film could as well. The film also has the chance to explore the effects of the character’s choices (both good and bad) on the people and systems/institutions around them.

And stories like that raise good questions and plenty of God-talk. But either way, I think it promises God-talk, be it of the variety we saw with The DaVinci Code (though not nearly as hyped, I’ll wager) or (as I hope) of the sort I mention above. My hopes are probably too high, but nonetheless, I’ll keep my eye on this one.

(Images: Hypatia and Augustine, public domain)

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