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The physician: the acclaimed novel of the same name gets it's big-screen makeover in a sweeping epic which sheds light on one of medieval Persia's medical pioneers.

ADAPTED FROM NOAH GORDON'S 1987 BEST seller about a medieval doctor and his journey to Persia, budgeted at $35m, with exteriors shot in Germany and Morocco, the period drama The Physician starring Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgard and Tom Payne has been nearly 25 years in the making. The novel was a global best-seller--particularly in Germany, where it became one of the most-read books of all time. The motion picture adaptation however, was delayed year after year due to a fierce competition for its screen rights, as well as multiple rewritten scripts which never got the author's full approval until German director Philipp Stolzl and the Berlin-based production group UFA Cinema convinced the Boston based writer with their vision.

The movie tells the story of young Englishman Rob Cole (Tom Payne), who is both blessed and cursed with the ability to sense when someone is about to die. He tries to study medicine, but medieval England is a backwater of religious quacks and superstition. Orphaned at an early age, he is apprenticed to an itinerant barber surgeon (Stellan Skarsgard), the medieval equivalent of a snake oil salesman, flimflam man, and healer all rolled into one. Rob travels the English countryside along with his devious tutor lancing boils, treating coughs, and hawking their all-cure elixir, which is nothing more than apple brandy mixed with a host of questionable herbs. It is in one of the villages that Rob discovers his gift to foresee a patient's death with a touch of a hand. At first, he is horrified by the discovery, having experienced the same morbid sensation when as a child he touched his mother's hand the day before she died. Although wary of being accused of witchcraft, the gift continues to manifest itself as years go by and Rob begins to realise that healing may after all be his destiny.

When his mentor dies 10 years later, Rob, now a young man, is free to pursue his calling. Hearing of a gifted physician and teacher in faraway Persia, he sets off from his English purgatory, on a dangerous journey through the bandit-plagued countryside of Byzantine Europe, Turkey, and Syria. He disguises himself as a lew, in a bid to study his craft, at the best medical university in Persia's most enchanting city, Isfahan. Dubbed 'Nesfeh Jahan' or 'Half the world' since the dawn of time, 11th century Isfahan is also reputed to tolerate Jews as opposed to crusading Christians. We are reminded that what became known in the West as the Dark Ages was, in contrast, the Golden Age of Islamic science, art, astrology, astronomy, physics, chemistry and medicine.

It is indeed the dazzling surgery of a Jew trained by the legendary Persian physician Avicenna (Ben Kingsley) that ultimately convinces Rob to seek tutelage in the great master's school. The intensity of Rob's desire to unearth the secrets of healing is admirable and at times gruesomely daunting, as, for example, when he goes as far as to self-circumcise himself to pass as a Jew.

As Rob immerses himself in Judaic traditional life, a chance encounter with the Shah of Persia (Olivier Martinez), opens the door to the school of physicians where he formally begins to study medicine with his role model before joining the Shah's army as a war surgeon.

This life-changing experience will carry him to war-torn (and plague-torn) lands as far as India to practice his art before returning to Persia where he secretly weds a Christian woman from Scotland who, like him, has left her native land. Together they seek happiness amidst the political and religious turmoils that plague the country.

The film highlights the contrast between the crude monastic treatments practiced in Europe, which relied heavily on bleeding, versus those practiced by the famed Avicenna in Persia where illnesses were scientifically studied and complex surgeries such as cataract removal were carefully performed. If for the most part the characters in Noah Gordan's epic are fictional, that of Avicenna is real. Known to Persians as Abu All Sina (Ibn Sina) he was an 11th-century polymath, physician and philosopher who wrote almost 450 treatises on a wide range of subjects including his renowned The Book of Healing, which became a standard medical text across the Middle East and Europe well into the 17th century.

And what better choice than Ben Kingsley to be cast in the part? Known for his dramatic roles such as the lead protagonist in Richard Attenborough's bio epic 'Gandhi', Kingsley has previously portrayed Persian characters such as the embittered exiled General in the contemporary social drama The House of Sand and Fog (2003) or that of an evil vizir in the Disney bluckbuster adventure film : Prince of Persia : The Sands of Time.

Director Philipp Stolzl's cinematic approach respects the original novel's fast-paced narrative, one engrossing scene unfolding into another, revealing yet another adventure, danger or discovery. His portrayal of medieval Isfahan with its dusty streets, legless beggars and camel dung, yet the centre of advanced medicine in the Islamic world is intriguing. It should be noted that the desire for authenticity led to a year-long delay in production when the Arab Spring uprising put plans for a 2011 shoot in Morocco on hold.

The Physician proves entertaining enough to capture our attention even if Stolzl's narrative of Noah Gordon's novel has a flavour of deja vu reminiscent of recent screen adaptations such as Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth (turned into a successful tv series) and countless other medieval epics, most of which, in recent years, seem to emulate the visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Ultimately the film is a sort of pilgrim's progress unfolding in an adventurous and inspiring tale of a quest for medical knowledge and scientific enlightenment pursued in a violent era full of superstition and prejudice that dramatically echoes that of our contemporary world.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic/FILM
Author:Kadivar, Darius
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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