Not often will we watch Arab cinema or get recommendations for Arab movies, or enthusiastic reviews.
I’ve been waiting a lot for this one. It’s one of the best historical dramas I’ve seen lately, and probably the best one based on an important philosophers life – the life of (known by his latinized name) Averroes. Maybe you remember him from some references about Middle Ages, scholasticism or Aristotle. Well he lived in Muslim Spain in the 12th century and was a great promoter of Aristotelic thinking.
The influence and popularity of Aristotle in Christian Europe and Western Philosophy owes to The Commentator (as he was known), the founder of Averroism as a philosophical movement, a big influence on such luminaries as Thomas Aquinas. His translations into latin have transformed him into a founder of secular Europe, even if he remained quite controversial.
Now the movie itself goes beyond the historical figure who was a polymath(medicine, celestial mechanics, physics, politics, mathematics, geography, logic, Arab music theory etc) and updates the whole, transforming his era into a battlefield of secular thought, book translations, censorship, knowledge, the economics of fanaticism, political intrigue and not the last – the power of music and dance to fight viscerally against the sacred violence of religious and patriarchal monarchical power.
This Egyptian-Levatine director, who I never encountered before, has made an incredible pledge for showing how a historical piece can be turned around and used as critical and emancipatory vehicle atuned to contemporary sensibility. Don’t expect something experimental or action driven, but please note how basically the format of soap opera lends itself to transmitting the tensions and urgencies of philosophical issues.
Please don’t stumble on the musical numbers, the obligatory dance scenes, the class alliance between the scribes, the gypsy and the kings sons. They all serve a clear purpose, to show how their destinies become entwined and how they end up smuggling, trafficking some of the most basic freedoms and ideals.
I’ll just describe the first scene who plays in Christian Europe, where a friend of Averroes and a fellow translator is burned to the stake by the inquisition. His son escapes to Andalusia crossing over to the more tolerant (and more sophisticated) islamic civilisation developing there.
He takes refuge at Averroes welcoming home, a place of plenty, of merry and love making. But things are changing around. Islamic civilisation is not only under Christian attack but giving in to new radical islamist and pro-monarchic, militarist pressure groups, sponsored secretly by rich and scheming courtiers and theologians.
It is not a simplist description of radical groups but an attentive look into their mechanisms and drives. It’s a movement, in the eyes of the director, based on fervor as well as seduction. It’s a frugal, obeying, disciplined, mystical training camp that equates the military leader of the country with a messianic figure. Safe to say that most (till recently) islamist movements were in the opposition and always under threat of torture by the army dictatorships.
The intelectual think tank around Averroes, besides having some credit with the king and some checkers games doesn’t insure influence. But it’s influence comes out of educating the kings sons to be critical of corruption and trappings of power. They are stirred now to even change their careers and follow more liberal arts. Instead of military rulers, Averroes produces dancers and singers. He also is networker, and when his books get banished his students ride into far off lands to save and reproduce them in a place were they are welcomed like knowledge oasis.
Books, besides dance and music play an important role. They are crossing mountains and rivers. Arab culture is a world were books are treasured as well as feared, burned or avidly collected and paid for by the state. There is a strong message about defending culture as against defending just faith as well as the belief that ideas sometimes escape the flames
Averroes voices a larger concern over Arab civilisation and its self preservation that encompasses a lot more than just keeping the faith strong. In an incredible scene, music, eroticism and dance is literally used to detoxify the newly intolerant youth.