As Christianity gains steam in Roman Egypt toward the end of the fourth century A.D., a young slave (Max Minghella) weighs his desire for freedom against his growing love for his mistress (Rachel Weisz), an atheist as well as a professor of philosophy.
Set in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 4th century, the film recounts the personal, social and religious conflicts that begin to take shape as Christianity gains a wider influence in other regions of the world, like Northwest Africa.
In the beginning, we are met with the atheist philosopher Hypatia who is instructing her small group of students on the movements of the planets, which were called “wanderers” at the time. Throughout the film, she grapples with the once-important question: In what way do the planets revolve around the sun. She knows, of course, that Earth is round and that the sun, not Earth, as early believers claimed, is at the center of the solar system, known as heliocentrism. Because objects fall in precisely the same way from no matter what height, she learns on a trip to sea that the Earth is not rotating in any way that is at once noticeable to humans in real time. Thus she was left with the question of how the concept that we know today as gravity affects the movement of the “wanderers,” all the while, being ridiculed by Christians for correctly believing that Earth was round. She also ponders a theory that, as best I understand it, held that within the larger orbit of the planets, each individual planet demonstrated its own, more localized and smaller orbit. Hypatia was also attributed by one of her pupil’s, Synesius, later bishop of Cyrene, with the invention of the astrolabe, although some others have apparently come before Hypatia’s.
While Hypatia is wrestling with these questions — in the movie, she says that if she could only figure out a solution of the Earth’s orbit, she could die happy — her slave Davus, an intelligent servant who falls in love with her, later comes to believe in Christianity and joins a rather violent group that eventually subdues the pagans, of which, Hypatia’s father is a member, and destroys the famous Alexandria library, which at one time, was filled with now-lost volumes of learning, smashed, of course, by the believers, who were, as ever, hostile to science and philosophy. Here is the Wikipedia snippet on that unfortunate scene:
In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. In 391, the Patriarch Theophilus destroyed all pagan temples in Alexandria under orders from Emperor Theodosius I.
Later in the film, Davus begins to question the brutal methods dished out by his brethren, stating to one of his fellow believers that Jesus himself forgave those who persecuted him even while on the cross. Touche. Nonetheless, that objection didn’t seem to make a dent on his radical cohorts. The Christian/Pagan conflict then began to heat up in Alexandria as another of Hypatia’s students, Orestes, now prefect of the city, and Hypatia’s confidant, is upbraided for his refusal to kneel to God when a passage in the New Testament is read during a service about how men should not seek advise of women. The apologist leading the serve all but by name identifies Hypatia as one who practices witchcraft, as she is the most well-known woman in the town. In those days, and even in 17th century America, women either bowed the knee or were disgracefully accused of sorcery or licentiousness.
On Synesius’ urging, however, Orestes approaches Hypatia to ask her, at least in deed, to go through with a baptismal to protect her from retribution from the Christians. Orestes said he could no longer protect her with his troops because of increased pressure from the believers. He also said he could not function in his duties as prefect without her counsel, adding that he did not want one of the main Christian leaders to “win” by dividing the two friends. To which Hypatia replied in what I would call the climax of the film:
Oh, Orestes. He’s already won.
She then walks out into the streets and is immediately arrested by the same Christian group to which Davus belongs.
As the movie concludes, Hypatia is marched up the steps of a church, while ruthlessly being mocked as a witch and whore by the religious. The stunning, soft-faced and exceeding intelligent Hypatia is then stripped naked and is about to be skinned alive. Davus, to save Hypatia from the humiliating and torturous fate, suggests to his Christian brethren with a different technique: stoning. While the group temporary disperses to gather their stones — persecuting tools are always within arms reach — he approaches the woman he loves, wraps her arms around her from behind, cranes his head and looks into her eyes. They both nod in agreement in what must happen. He proceeds to cover her mouth and nose with his hand to suffocate her. When the believers come back, the Hypatia is already dead, and Davus simply says that she fainted and walks out of the church as the other believers throw rocks at the carcass. She’s believed to have been dragged naked through the streets, although the film does not depict this. I would be interested to know if Davus left Christianity after that episode or he continued in his belief. Perhaps he began to follow a more moderate brand or he disavowed his faith. Either is probable since he appeared quite devout, yet humane and thoughtful.
Given how beautiful and reasonably-minded Hypatia is thought to have been, I felt intense anger at the end of this film that such a smart and lovely creature had to endure such a hideous death by people who thought they had God on their side. And more than that, the feeling was tinged with the thought that she probably died in real life by a much worse means than suffocation and also that countless women were burned and hung or stoned as witches because of religion and ignorance. That’s not fiction.
Christopher Hitchens has written an entire book on the how religion has poisoned history down through the ages, but we can heap on more to the number: the record of science and free thought in antiquity or at any time, really. The famous library in Alexandria was completely upended and basically converted to an animal stable. Who knows how many secular or scientific works of antiquity have been lost because of the pomposity and outright certainty of the religious that they are in the right, when science more and more heaps on the evidence that it’s precisely the other way around. For instance, the authors of the Handbook of Christian Apologetics often use the claim of the historicity of religious texts and the large number of texts that have been preserved through history to validate their supernatural claims. But how many more ancient secular, scientific and philosophical texts might we have if the religious strong hand hasn’t warred against free thought and inquiry since religion was invented? How much history might have been written differently had not religious strong-handing elevated certain preferred works and subdued or outright destroyed others as in the library. For, it is in the religious, that the religious held the power in the times of Hypatia. Else, she would have gotten to live a full life. Else, the works that she so admired in the Alexandria library might have been preserved.
I’ll leave it to those who have yet to see the film to discover whether or not she finally answered the question about the Earth’s rotation and orbit. In total, I thought the videography was excellent, which at times panned away to provocative and unique angles, and at others, expanded out to view the entire globe from space, as if to remind the reader, not only of religion’s near ubiquitous hold on mankind but about Hypatia’s more personalized struggle to figure the calculus of the cosmos.