Fact vs. Fantasy; a Tale of 2 Films

Higher Purpose of the Pantheon

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 6, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Last week, Romans were treated to two new cinematic offerings. Both films had several points in common: They proposed a hagiography of sorts, faced challenges in distribution, and claim to enlighten viewers regarding a specific historical period.

But while the documentary "A Servant of All" charitably studied the life of Archbishop Fulton Sheen and his role in the rising age of television, "Agora," a Spanish film written and directed by self-proclaimed atheist Alejandro Amenábar, frequently brandished a rhetoric which, if directed at a Jew or a homosexual, would be prosecuted in Europe as hate speech.

“Agora" -- a two and a half hour descent into a fictional Inferno recounting the riots in fourth-century Alexandria, Egypt, at the time of its conversion to Christianity -- purports to tell the story of Hypatia, a female philosopher whose history is more legend than fact. Caught between the violence of pagans and Jews, Hypatia ultimately succumbs to what the director paints as the Christians' implacable intolerance toward women and science.

Released in 2009 in Europe, the film had difficulty finding an Italian distributor allegedly because of interference by “Christian groups” (one wonders with such power wielded by “Christian groups” how on earth did “The Da Vinci Code” ever get released?). The facts (not a strong point of this film) are that after a year in release, the film has grossed $32 million in Europe not covering even half of its $70 million budget, so it is not a big money maker (except in Spain). It is also two hours and 21 minutes of anachronistic railing against organized religion without even a brief moment of humor or lightness. Amenábar might want to take a few pointers from Monty Python for Catholic-bashing with panache.

“Servant of All,” a television documentary recounting the life of John Fulton Sheen, archbishop and media personality, is also attempting to get noticed by a larger audience. Boasting a considerably lower budget, the producers of the Maximus Group have taken a leaf out of Mel Gibson’s grass roots marketing strategy for “The Passion." During the course of 2010, they are arranging private screenings in schools and parishes, and came to Rome last week to screen the film in the Pontifical Universities of St. Thomas Aquinas, Regina Apostolorum and Santa Croce.

The idea is to create a Catholic "buzz" around the film before its official release by inviting people to host screenings in their towns. But despite the obvious theme of Catholic contribution to mass media, the film eschews exploiting the present media hostility toward the Church to boost sales. Of course, the Sheen filmmakers aren't facing the same deficit as Amenábar.

Both films look to take the life of a single person and extol it as exemplary for its age. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose cause for canonization was opened in 2002, was first and foremost a good priest. Born in Illinois in 1895 and ordained in 1919, Sheen showed signs of a brilliant career as a scholar, earning two doctoral degrees, in the United States and Belgium. He sacrificed his desire for an academic life to dedicate himself to pastoral work, excelling at this as well. A gifted communicator, his path soon crossed the fledgling world of television and before long, Monsignor Fulton Sheen was reaching homes and people far beyond his diocese. His television program, “Life is Worth Living" was watched by an approximate 30 million viewers and beat out the superstar comedian Milton Berle. Noting his talents, Pope Pius XII named Sheen a bishop and appointed him National Director for the Propagation of the Faith.

Hypatia’s life is known from later sources as a mathematician and philosopher of the Neo-Platonic school. In the film, she is played by actress Rachel Weisz, probably best known as the spunky librarian of the “Mummy" films. Amenábar depicts her as an astronomer who first anticipates the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, then previews Newton’s experiments with gravity, finally discovering the theory of elliptical orbit. All this empirical science will of course land her in trouble with the Christians, who are portrayed by the director as street thugs, destroying monuments and burning books in the best tradition of the Nazis.

In a perverse take on “Star Wars," (which was perhaps a more realistic movie), the Christian monks are even robed in black proto-storm trooper wear to contrast with the white robes of the philosophers. Led by St. Cyril of Alexandria, doctor of the Church best known for his defense of the importance of the Virgin Mary against the Nestorian heresy, the Alexandrian Christians harbor a particular resentment against Hypatia. St. Cyril cites a few choice words from the First Letter of St. Timothy, 2:12, where he says that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet,” using Scripture to rouse the crowd against her.

Accused of godlessness, Hypatia gazes toward the sky and declares “I believe in philosophy,” (at this point, I started wishing the Mummy would return). Ultimately, the film has her killed by Christians, who in a horrific parody of the martyrdom of St. Agnes, strip her naked before the cross on an altar forcing her to adore their God. This account of her death, by the way, appeared several centuries later and was enhanced by anti-Christian literature during the Enlightenment.

Granted, the hagiography of the Fulton Sheen film has a few moments to give one pause, but its errors are of reticence as opposed to accusation. The filmmakers gloss over Archbishop Sheen’s apparent three-year exile to Rochester, New York, gently attributing it to “strained relations” with the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. It also plays down the hard work that Sheen did to master his television craft, practicing gestures and expressions, and memorizing his texts to be able to deliver them perfectly. Undoubtedly this was done for the best of reasons -- to emphasize charity and Sheen’s very spiritual nature -- but unfortunately the film misses an opportunity to teach young priests to approach media work with studiousness and diligence.

In Amenábar's film, Hypatia’s wisdom is an end unto itself -- a self-absorbing desire for knowledge that neither offered transcendence or revelation. Yet Amenábar, like the Gnostics before him, sees that search for knowledge as the highest human condition. Fulton Sheen, offered the chance to join the intellectual elite, chose to put his gifts at the service of his fellow men, writing 66 books, visiting believers and non-believers alike, and bringing thousands upon thousands into the peace of Christ. Yet Amenábar despises Fulton Sheen and his culture, falsely depicting Christian apologists as destroyers of knowledge. While he is at it, Amenábar throws a few more anti-Christian stereotypes in the mix: The Christians see women as witches, they hold up their crucifixes while they beat their enemies and stone Jews. The only thing missing is torturing a homosexual and the laundry list of alleged Christian "crimes” would be complete.

In a nod to his own agenda, Amenábar, who also made “The Sea Within” in 2004 to promote euthanasia, employed an already considerable artistic license to recount the death of Hypatia. Before the Christians could skin her alive or stone her or indulge in some other barbaric practice, her former slave, now a Christian thug, suffocates her, allowing her to die with “dignity” while gazing at the sky.

Sadly, “Agora” was produced under the aegis of the Spanish Ministry of Culture, telling us that the Holy Father will have his work cut out for him when he visits Spain later this year. Ironically, 40 years after the alleged murder of Hypatia, the barbarian Vandals would storm through Europe, sacking and destroying the great city of Rome, before moving on to settle in Spain. The only reason that the monuments, books and culture of the Empire survived was the care and concern of the Christians to preserve the wisdom and beauty of the past.

Fulton Sheen ennobled mass media by using to it proclaim a message of hope and love; Amenábar abases it with his film meant to incite intolerance and hate.

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Temple music

While I was musing on the stream of accusations laid by Amenábar at the Christian’s door, I went to the Pantheon to hear a concert by the University of Pittsburgh’s Men’s Glee Club. The 1,900-year-old pagan temple resounded with the voices of these young men from a world unknown to the Romans who built it.

Amenábar obviously emulated this building when he planned the Serapeum of his film, the center of learning in Alexandria and home to part of the famous library. The Pantheon indeed expressed the knowledge and genius of the Romans as well as their belief that men could become gods. But after sacks and disease and abandonment of the city, the building became a mass of cold bricks that had once sheltered the long forgotten pagan idols.

Instead of leaving it to fall into ruin or to be quarried for its granite and stone, the Christians recognized both the beauty of the structure and the genius behind it. They gave it a new life and purpose, to protect the precious relics of the martyrs who had been killed in the name of those idols of men who believed themselves gods. The Pantheon was the first pagan temple to become a Christian church in 609.

The choir sang several works, closing with the “Ave Maria." Tourists stopped photographing, put away their guidebooks and gathered around the little group at the altar. As the harmonious tones wafted toward the sky, they filled the void left by the empty pagan religions with a richer and more glorious presence.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.