Is it a sign of exhausted
creativity that anti-Christian film makers are exhuming Enlightenment myths? In
the arthouses this summer are two films recycling tattered canards which have
been mouldering in history books for centuries, repeatedly refuted and
Pope Joan (Die Päpstin) is a German
production about a female Pope who — supposedly – was elected in 853. Mediaeval
legends about the Popess are sketchy, but what legend leaves out, the imagination
of the director, Sönke Wortmann, fills in.
Joan is the daughter of a
German priest. In a time of political and social chaos she finds safety by
disguising herself as a monk. So brilliantly does she succeed that the Romans end
up electing her as their Bishop by acclamation. She makes a great Pope and her
lover becomes the general of her army. Unfortunately, during a Papal procession
in the third year of her reign, she miscarries and dies in childbirth. In some
versions of the legend the mob tears her limb from limb.
If this is history, so are Hellboy and Borat. The newspaper L’Avvenire,
which speaks for the Italian bishops, has called it a “a hoax” and a
film of “extremely limited vision”. That’s being charitable.
The other film, Agora, is a Spanish
blockbuster by Alejandro Amenábar which takes place in Alexandria in 415. Its
heroine is Hypatia, a young unmarried and virginal woman of genius who teaches
philosophy and astronomy in the Agora, the ancient world’s version of a
Hypatia is a pagan, one of a declining
minority in a city torn by feuds between Jews and fundamentalist Christians led
by the scheming Patriarch Cyril. It is a tough time for lovers of the truth,
especially when Christians destroy Alexandria’s rich library. When Hypatia
refuses to recant her belief that the earth revolves around the Sun and then
refuses to become a Christian, the mob seizes her. To spare her the agony of
being stoned, one of her admirers euthanases her. (Amenábar also directed The Sea Inside, an award-winning film about euthanasia.)
The story of Hypatia has been kicking
around for a long time, although Amenábar heightens her virtue, beauty,
intellect and accomplishments to a higher pitch than usual. John Tolland, an
18th century foe of Christianity, wrote a tract about her, salting the scanty
historical record with vicious ridicule. In the Rise and Fall of the Roman
Empire, another anti-Christian historian, Edward Gibbon recounts, somewhat
gleefully, how “a troop of savage and merciless fanatics” scraped the flesh
from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and “her quivering limbs were delivered
to the flames”. But in fact, little is known for certain about Hypatia’s life,
and it is not completely certain that she was a pagan. We know about as much about Hypatia as we do about Pocahontas.
Agora, like Pope Joan, is basically an
excuse to depict Christians as fierce, ignorant, and intolerant barbarians.
There’s little point in lamenting the
embellishment of scanty historical records with anachronistic prejudice and romantic
fiction. Why don’t fans of Christian history make their own films about
well-documented events which display the heroism and humanity of Christian
life? Here are some of my suggestions for film scripts with possible titles.
Post yours in the comments.
With God in Russia. This is the astonishing
story of Walter Ciszek, a rebellious Polish-speaking lad from Pennsylvania who
became a Jesuit missionary in the USSR during World War II. He was quickly
captured and tortured in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, then sentenced to 15 years
hard labour in Siberia. There he evangelised his fellow prisoners and after his
release became an underground chaplain for hundreds and hundreds of Catholics
in dusty Stalinist cities in central Russia. How about Leonard Di Caprio in the
Katonda, Katonda. These were the last words
of Charles Lwanga, a young Ugandan man who was an official in the court of King
Mwanga in the 1860s. A talented wrestler and a natural leader, he was also a Catholic
catechist. He was burned alive for refusing to renounce his Christian faith and
for refusing the homosexual advances of the king. A deeply moving portrait of
muscular Christianity with a pointed subtext about gay culture. “Diddy”
Combs might be a bit old for the role, but he would bring in the star factor.
Dictionary. The most famous literary figure
of 18th century England was Samuel Johnson. He was tall, ugly, overweight and
afflicted with tics and bizarre mannerisms, but a brilliant wit and a devout
Christian. The work which consumed his life was his Dictionary of the English
Language. A good director could make an arthouse hit with scintillating
dialogue as Johnson labours for years on a work “written with little assistance
of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft
obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst
inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.” A great role for
James Cromwell, if he can be persuaded to add about 50 pounds.
Pressed for Time. A tale of a courageous
feminist of Elizabethan times. While Good Queen Bess sat on the throne of
England, her agents pursued Catholic priests as traitors. Margaret Clitherow, a
mother of three in the northern city of York was accused of sheltering priests.
She refused to plead either innocent or guilty because in either case her
children would lose their inheritance. “Having made no offense, I need no trial,”
she said. So she was remorsely pressed to death beneath a plank laden with rocks. Even Elizabeth was
horrified at this barbarity. Nicole Kidman would be great.
The Great Experiment. Maybe the European
Union is falling apart because no one has made a film about it. How about a
biography of one of its founders, Robert Schuman, a French politician who might
someday be canonised as a saint of the Catholic Church? His life has
everything: escape from the Gestapo, fighting with the French Resistance,
fighting Communist unions, dramatic speeches, and a millennium-old dream of
European unity. Ben Kingsley looks uncannily like him.
Sabre and Sickle. Why not a film about the
first modern genocide? Where? Not in Turkey, Russia or Germany, but in France,
where the revolutionary government suppressed a Catholic and royalist uprising
by killing everyone. Of the estimated 800,000 people in La Vendée in 1790, up
to 400,000 may have been slaughtered. French general Francois Joseph Westermann
reported to the government, “I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with
corpses… Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.” In a history with so many herores and so much technicolour
bloodshed, perhaps the film could focus on Charles Melchior Artus de Bonchamps,
the doomed rebel leader who died in battle, but not before pardoning five
thousand Republican prisoners, whom his troops had sworn to kill in revenge for
his death. Whether this was a genocide or a murderous civil war is heatedly
disputed amongst historians. But, hey, it would make a great film.
More suggestions? Include a working title and the main star or stars as well.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.