Yet another controversial church-history movie?

Yet another controversial church-history movie? February 13, 2008


Looks like we will all be debating yet another aspect of church history in a year or two. The Hollywood Reporter says Alejandro Amenábar — the Spanish director of The Sea Inside (2004), The Others (2001) and Open Your Eyes (1997), the last of which was remade as Vanilla Sky (2001) — is about to direct a movie about a clash between atheism and fanaticism in the patristic age:

Rachel Weisz, Ashraf Barhom and Oscar Isaac will star in Alejandro Amenabar’s untitled English-language movie being prepped for a major shoot in Malta.

Much of the project, which Amenabar wrote and is directing, has been shrouded under a veil of secrecy. 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.

Sunmin Park and Fernando Bovira are producing the film, which sometimes operates under the title “Mists of Time.” . . .

The mere fact that Oscar Isaac is involved in this film is reason enough to be curious about it, I think. He was easily the best thing about The Nativity Story (2006), and when I met him at the junket for that film, he seemed very thoughtful and articulate. I have been looking forward to the chance to see him in other movies, and I am glad the opportunity to do so is almost here.

But hoo boy, then there’s the subject matter. I knew nothing about this story before I heard about the film, so of course I turned to Wikipedia to see what I could learn about these characters. And, well, here is part of what Wikipedia has to say about Hypatia of Alexandria, the character Rachel Weisz will be playing:

Hypatia of Alexandria . . . was a Greek or Egyptian scholar, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy. She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Coptic Christian mob who blamed her for religious turmoil. Hailed as a “valiant defender of science against religion”, some suggest that her murder marked the end of the Hellenistic Age. . . .

Hypatia travelled to both Athens and Italy to study, before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400 AD, and would teach Plato and Aristotle to anybody willing to listen, including a number of Christians and foreigners who came to her classes.

Although Hypatia was herself a pagan, she was respected by a number of Christians, and later held up by Christian authors as a symbol of virtue. The Byzantine Suda controversially declared her “the wife of Isidore the Philosopher” but agreed she had remained a virgin.

Hypatia rebuffed a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags, claiming they demonstrated that there was “nothing beautiful” about carnal desires.

Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Bishop of Ptolomais Synesius of Cyrene. Together with the references by Damascius, these are the only writings with descriptions or information from her pupils that survive. . . .

Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Bishop Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled.

One day in March 415CE, during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks led by a man identified only as “Peter”.

She was stripped naked and dragged through the streets to the newly christianised Caesareum church and killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostrakois (literally, “oyster shells”, though also used to refer to roof tiles or broken pottery) and set ablaze while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death. . . .

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s entry on Orestes states:

Orestes was appointed Imperial Prefect of Alexandria shortly after a young Cyril succeeded to the Patriarchate of Alexandria after the death of Theophilus, Cyril’s own uncle. . . .

Orestes steadfastly resisted Cyril’s agenda of ecclesiastical encroachment onto secular prerogatives. Rebuffed by the Prefect, Patriarch Cyril felt threatened, and people from various groups connected with the Church decided to aid him.

In fact, at around 414 – 415 AD, monks assaulted and badly injured Orestes. The Prefect had the leader of this mob tortured to death. Cyril tried to make the executed man into a martyr, but local leaders and ultimately the Emperor did not condone the monks’ attack on the imperial representative, and Cyril had to back off.

Prefect Orestes enjoyed the political backing of Hypatia, a female philosopher who had considerable moral authority in the city of Alexandria, and who had extensive influence. Indeed many students from wealthy and influential families came to Alexandria purposefully to study privately with Hypatia, and many of these later attained high posts in government and the Church.

In 415 AD Churchmen leading a superstitious mob grabbed Hypatia out of her chariot and brutally murdered her, hacking her body apart and burning the pieces outside the city walls. This political assassination eliminated an important and powerful supporter of the Imperial Prefect, and led Orestes to give up his struggle against Patriarch Cyril and to leave Alexandria.

There is yet another version of what transpired between these people at Wikipedia’s entry for Cyril of Alexandria, which includes at least one detail that would seem to contradict some of the details quoted above. (Did Orestes give up and leave Alexandria, as stated above? Or was he killed while protecting Jewish synagogues from Christian mobs, as stated at the other page?)

Obviously, I will have to do more research in the next little while.

I can’t say I care to see the early church’s dirty laundry aired as I imagine it will be in this film, but it also does no good to pretend that the events described here didn’t actually happen. And it is too early to say just how this movie will approach the material.

It will be particularly interesting to see who gets cast as St. Cyril — it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers would be able to tell the story without him — and how involved he is made out to be with the “zealous Christian monk named Ammonius.” Stay tuned.


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  • It sounds fascinating. If, however, one is going to all the trouble of putting on the screen such a richly detailed yet relatively obscure story (I admit I’d never heard of it), why one would commit the odd anachronism of making Hypatia an atheist rather than a pagan. To be sure, atheism wasn’t unknown in ancient times (it was one of the charges for which Socrates was executed), but it must have been very, very rare.

    Given the very obvious story element of Christians Behaving Badly, is there a belief on the part of the filmmakers that this element will play more sympathetically against an atheist than against a pagan? Methinks that would be another anachronism: it’s not as though ancient Christians would oppose atheists and ancient pagans would tolerate them. Rather, both Christians and pagans would have reason to be equally suspicious of an atheist.

  • Well, according to that Wikipedia article, Hypatia was a “Neoplatonist philosopher” who “discouraged mysticism – while encouraging logical and mathematical studies.” That doesn’t necessarily mean she was an atheist, but it might push her closer to that point on the spectrum than the typical “pagan” of her day.

  • Ah. Well, it could be that the Hollywood Reporter writer doesn’t know the difference between Neoplatonism and atheism.

  • or perhaps it’s the filmmakers who don’t know the difference?

  • It’s an interesting story to tell but what happens in movies aren’t the final word in regards to history.

  • Although called pagans by Christians, Neoplatonists believed in God – just not the Christian God. Hypatia was an important figure in history, and I hate to see a movie distort her life and misinform the public. There is no evidence that she was an atheist, that she owned a slave, or that she had a love affair with Orestes. I did some research on her life for an education class I took recently at ASU West. Here is a link to the paper I wrote for that class: http://members.cox.net/jhaldenwang/Hypatia.htm

  • “I can’t say I care to see the early church’s dirty laundry aired as I imagine it will be in this film, but it also does no good to pretend that the events described here didn’t actually happen. And it is too early to say just how this movie will approach the material.”

    It’s not entirely too early to say how the history is going to be approached in this movie, since the writer-director has made it perfectly clear that it’s going to perpetuate at least two hoary myths: (i) that the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by a Christian mob and (ii) that Hypatia’s death had something to do with her being a scientist, a pagan or both. Both ideas are nonsense – see here for a detailed analysis of how this movie gets the history wrong:

    http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/05/agora-and-hypatia-hollywood-strikes.html

  • Anonymous

    It sounds like the movie is based on Kingsley's novel, with the reference to a monk becoming her student and falling in love with her (something that I seriously doubt happened outside the fevered imagination of the Victorian novelist).

  • Michelle

    I enjoyed the movie Agora, about the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer Hypatia. Yes, the movie portrayed the Christian mob as zealots and killers for Christ. The Jews and Pagans were just as bloody in the show. Fourth century Roman-ruled Egypt was a murderous time. Hypatia potrayed more Christian qualities than the Christians at that time.