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Movie review: The Physician
A savior for the Old World. In the 11th century, Rob travels to the Gulf to learn about medicine, but he doesn't always feel like he is welcome.
May 9, 2014

Movie review: The Physician

Historical epic points out the danger of religious intolerance, and of the intolerance of religion

A story about the dangers of religious extremism and the wonders of the Orient, The Physician is a 150-minute film that uses a great deal of computer generated images to conjure up a tale as stunning as anything told to Scheherazade. Set almost exactly 1,000 years ago, the film opens in Viking-era England, with unspoiled landscapes as far as the eye can see, but where Christianity ordains that prayer alone can cure someone in pain (not unlike modern-day Christian Scientists), and that any kind of medicine is the work of the devil and of witches.

One of the people in pain is a single mother who cares for her children as well as she can, but who suffers terrible pain in her stomach — something everyone simply refers to as “side sickness,” for lack of understanding it is in fact the very curable appendicitis. Her son, Rob, has a special talent, as he can “feel” that she will die when he touches her chest, and the feeling of despair initially overwhelms him, especially when the church swindles his family while pretending to be a Good Samaritan, and he is left to fend for himself.

Rating: ***
Directed by Philipp Stölzl
With Tom Payne, Ben Kingsley, Emma Rigby and Stellan Skarsgård

When a man calling himself a barber (Stellan Skarsgård), but who in fact seems to know a little bit about medicine and chiropractic, arrives in town, Rob chases after him, intrigued by the possibility that there is hope to be found beyond the doctrine of the church, which appears to be painfully ineffective. The man takes him in and raises him like his own son, until he goes blind, and Rob sees there is hope to be found in Oriental medicine.

Rob, who has always been keen to learn to help people with their ailments, decides to risk life and limb to travel eastward to Isfahan in modern-day Iran, situated in the unknown Muslim World, where the same kind of religious intolerance is practiced as the kind he experiences in England, and in order to survive he pretends to be a Jew.

However, we are led to believe that he undertakes this big journey with almost no exposure to Judaism except for meeting two Jewish boys, memorizing their Jewish names and knowing that Jews are circumcised. Except for this handful of facts, he goes into battle entirely unprepared, which may very well offer the filmmaker an opportunity to elicit fear in his audience when the inevitable situation arises in which Rob may be “found out,” but such an approach is manipulative and excessively simplistic, and it doesn’t arouse much sympathy in us.

What animates the film from time to time is the very clear message that a religion that lacks curiosity or critical thinking is worthless, and of course religion in the Middle Ages — even more so than today — was never very fond of those who thought outside the box, a point Galileo Galilei would acknowledge. And yet The Physician doesn’t declare all-out war on religion, as a more activist production like Alejandro Amenábar’s insightful and angry 2010 film Agora set out to do, which presented the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by the savage hordes of Christians who refuted any claims about the universe, no matter how great the science or the scientific minds behind them, that were not contained in the Bible. Plus ça change…

The Physician covers a lot of distance but ends up a wobbly mess with too much on its plate, as it seeks to inform us about glorious tradition of medicine in the Orient while Europe’s fixation on Christian beliefs led to the rejection of cures for treatable diseases. All three Abrahamic religions’ idea of the body as a temple also meant that it could not be opened up to learn more, leading to strange ideas about the way the body works. In a long-awaited scene that is terribly underwhelming, a body is cut open and miraculously the individual doing this immediately understands how all the pieces fit together and quickly figures out what someone actually died from, as opposed to the conventional grasp of human biology.

As suggested by the opening title cards, it is a tragedy that such concerns about the sacredness of the human body led to scores of needless deaths, and some exclaiming, as a badge of honor, “my first amputation!” when a more scientific approach would have eliminated the need for rampant speculation about what lay at the root of people’s symptoms.

The Physician was shown at this year’s Febiofest, and although that does not mean much anymore, the film could certainly have been much worse. But despite the overbearing screenplay, a main character who stares off into the distance way too often and some terrible transitions indicating the passage of time, director Philipp Stölzl’s adaptation of Noah Gordon’s novel is a worthy reminder of the harm caused by a lack of critical thinking. Given the current political climate in the world, the film, regrettably, should be compulsory viewing.

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