If you’re looking for a genre-bender about the tribulations of a famous medieval philosopher, chock-full of improbable heroics, ripe melodrama, Socratic dialogues and splashy musical numbers, then Destiny is your film.
Concocted by Egyptian writer-director Youssef Chahine, the movie centers around the Andalusian philosopher Averroes who, you may recall, was the author of The Incoherence of Incoherence – which could serve as the film’s subtitle – and, more importantly, several commentaries on Aristotle which served as a link between the ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment. He was a man who, by turning his thoughts toward antiquity, turned out to be about 500 years ahead of his time.
Which may seem a bit esoteric, but the basic situation here is the always timeless one of the progressive thinker at odds with a repressive society. In 12th century Europe, being a philosopher was not an ivory tower pursuit but a revolutionary act, and the film opens with a follower of Averroes being burned at the stake.
The stake-burning takes place in France, but in Andalusia Averroes is tolerated, just barely, due to his friendship with the local caliph, one of whose sons is a disciple of the philosopher. Unfortunately, the caliph’s power base is unstable and the gist of the film’s story is whether or not Averroes – played with avuncular charm by Nourel el-Cherif – is going to survive and whether or not his writings will be safely smuggled out of the country.
Despite the myriad and colorful subplots, including romance, last-minute rescue and murder most foul, the film feels draggy, its narrative choppy and meandering. The musical numbers start out in naturalistic fashion, but quickly blossom into choreographed fantasies. It’s an interesting mess, but a mess all the same – a melange of song and dance, derring-do and drawn-out discussions on the relevance of Aristotelian principles as applied to the interpretation of religious text.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].