I have a lot of time to catch up on films and television series at the moment, so there’s that at least. Recently I watched Katherine of Alexandria (or Decline of an Empire depending on which part of the world you are from). I was really looking forward to watching this as female hagiography (saints’ lives) was the focus of my thesis and St. Katherine had a chapter all to herself as one of the most influential and prominent female saints of the middle ages. That and Peter O’Toole was in it so I was hyped.
Needless to say the hype was short lived. While re-reading the notes I made I noticed that I’d written, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here’ a lot. Far more than I should have written for any film, and if it weren’t for the fact that I was determined to start blogging again and Katherine of Alexandria is a decent subject for said blogging, then I would have turned the film off for being incredibly incoherent. Referring to my notes once more it apparently took me forty eight minutes before I started to understand what on earth was going on. Generally this was a terrible film that even Peter O’Toole couldn’t save, mostly because it did a terrible job of drawing together any kind of themes or points and the plot was incomprehensible.
The basic story centres on two people; Katherine of Alexandria (an Arabian girl, living in Rome with apparently no links to Alexandria whatsoever) and her childhood friend Constantine who would go on to become the Roman emperor who embraced Christianity (who far from being the son of Roman nobility is as much a peasant nomad as Katherine for some reason). The film is set during the fourth century where an Katherine is kidnapped by the Roman Emperor Marcelus, who comes across her family and takes a liking to her. Katherine goes on to impress everyone with her ability to learn but ultimately invokes the ire of the male teachers around her with her seemingly supernatural knowledge of subjects she could reasonably know nothing of. She also insists on there being just one God which raises a few eyebrows. As an adult woman she is invited to debate her Christian beliefs publicly, but so afraid of her reasoning, her opponents have her legs broken beforehand (I’m not sure how having her legs broken would affect her ability to speak but who am I to argue with incoherent plot points). Undeterred she faces them anyway and at this point the debate becomes a trial (I did say it was incoherent, right?), the result of which has her sentenced to death for her Christian beliefs. She is strung up on a breaking wheel which is hoisted and let fall numerous times until Katherine’s body is broken and she dies. (Even though this is not how the breaking wheel was used at all). The film carries on with Constantine but I’ve tried to ignore his part in this because I simply could not follow a lot of his situation. After hearing of Katherine’s death, Constantine goes in search of her, accompanied by fur wearing Scottish barbarian women, in Egypt, because “if Jesus could come back to life, why couldn’t she?” …yeah…that happened.
Seeing as I could barely follow the plot, it is no wonder that the history presented here is also a mess. While it could be claimed that Constantine and Katherine were contemporaries, had Katherine existed (more on that in a moment) but numerous historical details are incorrect. The most inconsequential of which, but for some reason the one that annoyed me the most was the inclusion of the famous Nefertiti bust. At one point the Roman senators accuse Katherine of being the reincarnation of Nefertiti (I’m not sure why) and use her bust to illustrate this, even though at the time that bust was in a workshop, underground not to be discovered until the twentieth century.
A large part of the film is set during the Roman campaigns into Scotland where the Roman army is pitted against an opposing army of Scottish barbarian women. Historically the Romans had ceased their attacks on Scotland in the previous century and this supposed group of barbarian women are entirely fictional. While I can ignore fictional characters in an historical setting I find their inclusion is problematic for other reasons, as the film subscribes to the modern tradition of presenting any historical man as evil and any historical woman as a heroine. The Roman soldiers are all vile reprobates, shown through the inclusion of an entirely gratuitous scene where a group murders a baby, so they could rape its mother, as opposed to the barbarian women who are celebrated heroines, even though they are themselves extremely violent, to the point of butchering and dismembering any male who crosses their path. Their actions are fully justified, even when they kidnap and torture errant soldiers.
The legend (Life) of Katherine focuses on two key points; her education and her virginity. As a female saint her sanctity is entirely bound to her sexuality with the majority of female saints martyred after refusing to marry a pagan suitor and thus maintain their virginity, a prerequisite for female sanctity. Katherine is no different, being sentenced to death after declaring her eternal virginity and refusing to marry the Roman Emperor. Katherine is alone among female saints in that she has a complete Life that covers her entire life (as opposed to the norm which begins at puberty and the moment they can declare themselves virgins) and thus also includes details of her education, unusual at this time for any woman. The film focuses on her education which comes from her deceased mother, while her ability to assimilate knowledge, as well as her insight into subject matter she has not been exposed to, is attributed to something otherworldly (hence the accusations of being Nefertiti incarnate, I guess?). In the film it is her debate with other Roman speakers who fail to overwhelm her with their arguments which seals her fate. After she converts a number of opposing orators she is sentenced to death, rather than tortured and propositioned as in the legend. The film treats her very much as an historical character, even though Katherine, more than any other saint, is clearly a fictional composite of many women who were sentenced to death for their Christianity, with a lot of hagiographical flair thrown in for good measure. Her Life establishes her as a princess of Alexandria at a specific time which can instantly be discounted as Alexandria had no princess Katherine in the fourth century, nor are there any records of her supposed parents.
Even though she is treated as a factual entity, her experiences with God are presented with more ambiguity. As eloquent as she is, her speech is not divinely inspired in any way; she simply has the courage of her convictions. When she is taken to the breaking wheel, she is lashed to it and it eventually kills her as opposed to in the legend where it is miraculously destroyed upon her touch, forcing her captors to behead her. Just before filmic Katherine is killed she looks to the heavens and sees a vision, however this could just be the result of the considerable torture her body has suffered, rather than a definite presentation of the Judeo-Christian God.
Interestingly, the obligatory historical note at the end of the film attributes both the conversion of Constantine and also the fall of the Roman Empire to Katherine’s life, hence the alternative title ‘Decline of an Empire’. Both of which are rather grandiose and generous claims to make. Constantine was not a contemporary of the fictional Katherine, and though she was an avatar of numerous persecuted Christians it is unknown how much of an effect, if any, these persecutions had in causing Constantine’s conversion. Constantine’s mother was a Christian and he claimed to have had personal religious experiences which facilitated his conversion. As for being responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire, although the tolerance of Christianity by Constantine did little to appease religious tension, the related skirmishes and civil wars the Roman Empire did not find itself in any serious trouble for at least another hundred years, while it did not disappear for another hundred after that. It finally vanished from the earth around two hundred years after Katherine’s supposed death.