Ideas are imperishable, such is the premise of this powerful, upbeat allegory from one of Egypt’s most esteemed directors, Youssef Chahine. Ostensibly the true tale of revolutionary Muslim philosopher Averroes who lived in 12th-century Spain when Arabs ruled Anadulsia, it parallels the story of Chahine’s own experiences with Islamic fundamentalists when he released his 1994 film L’Emigre because it dared depict a sacred Muslim prophet. During that time, fundamentalists were not content to merely have the film b
anned, they also threatened Chahine’s life. Despite their destructive efforts, the fundamentalists ultimately failed and L’Emigre became one of Egypt’s most successful films. Averroes was a follower of Aristotelian thought, an innovative lawyer and an important scientist (he discovered the purpose of the retina) who lived during the rule of the great liberal Caliph Al Mansour. At the time, the Caliph’s rivals were part of Magdi Idris, a fundamentalist sect, who sought to destroy his power by cloaking their own political agendas in religious dogma and spreading it liberally amongst the easily influenced peasantry. Averroes’ ordeal began when fundamentalists found his many books espousing a humanistic doctrine contrary to their own. Demanding an end to the spread of the philosophers radical, rationalist ideas, they insisted that the Caliph launch a fatwa against Averroes. To this end, all of his books were publicly burned and Averroes himself was exiled. But before the burning occurred, Averroes’ faithful students copied each of his detailed Commentaries on Aristotle and smuggled them to Egypt where in time they were passed down to become the cornerstones of modern Western philosophy. While the narrative itself is relatively straightforward with few epic embellishments, the film contains a few decidedly Arabic twists, such as the inclusion of several Egyptian song and dance numbers that Western audiences may find jarring.