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The place, frankly, stinks.
We’re in a Persian teaching hospital, circa 1030 A.D. Bodies loll about, groaning, on pallets. Turbaned doctors and veiled nurses bring in new sick patients on cloth-and-wood stretchers, dumping them on the next available bed. In the corner, Sir Ben Kingsley, stern in his loose-fitting caftan and tight tan turban — waits for his cue.
And the whole thing smells like a month of high holy days.
“Frankincense,” says a bearded key grip, holding up a slowly smoking sheaf. “The real stuff,” he explains, “cheaper than the movie-set version.”
The incense is being used for its visual effect, of course, blanketing the scene in what looks like an eon of dust and disease. But the olfactory byproduct — the sacred stink — is oddly appropriate. Because The Physician, an adaptation of the book by American writer Noah Gordon, is soaked in religion.
The Physician could be thought of as the antithesis of the propaganda hate film Innocence of Muslims. Instead of portraying Islam as a force of extremism and oppression, it offers a look at the religion at a point in history — the 11th century — when Muslims were on the cutting edge of science, culture and religious tolerance. “You have to remember, what we in the West call the Dark Ages was, simultaneously, the Golden Age of Islamic science, art, astrology, astronomy, physics, chemistry and medicine,” says Kingsley.
Budgeted at $35 million and with a cast that includes not only Oscar winner Kingsley but also Stellan Skarsgard (The Avengers), Olivier Martinez (Unfaithful) and rising German star Elyas M’Barek (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), Physician is a world away from the low-budget schlock of Innocence of Muslims.
The film is a sort of pilgrim’s progress: Young Englishman Rob Cole (British actor Tom Payne) 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. Hearing of a gifted physician and teacher in faraway Persia, he sets off, traveling from his English purgatory to the promised land and to the tutelage of the Persian philosopher and scientist Ibn Sina.
Gordon’s 1987 best-seller is fiction, but Sina was a real man — a true polymath who wrote a scientific encyclopedia, The Book of Healing, that was a standard medical text across the Middle East and Europe well into the 17th century.
Kingsley plays Sina, the latest in a long line of truelife icons or, as Sir Ben puts it, “historical archetypes” that the British actor has taken on in his career: from Oskar Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern to Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, from Mahatma Gandhi to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin. Sina will be the first Islamic icon on Kingsley’s impressive résumé, and he’s clearly relishing the opportunity to play someone with such resonance outside the Western world.
“I was speaking to an Iranian woman I worked with briefly, and she said: ‘You’re playing Ibn Sina! We love him! He is a national hero in Iran, we have monuments to him!’ ” Kingsley tells The Hollywood Reporter during a break in shooting at MMC Studios in Cologne, Germany. “She told me her mother, living in Tehran, is going to send me a book on him.”
Islam and Christianity aren’t the only two faiths on display in Physician. In the story, Cole, in order to gain admittance to Sina’s teaching hospital, pretends to be Jewish. Christians, whose religion at the time outlawed human dissection, were not allowed to attend.
“Rob even goes so far as to circumcise himself to pass as a Jew,” says Payne with a shudder. “That’s not a scene I’m really looking forward to.” The actor goes on to detail his planned preparation for the infamous self-circumcision scene — something involving an elasticized prop and a big pair of scissors.
Physician’s producer, German mini-major UFA Cinema, specializes in historic drama, usually of the small-screen variety. Its recent credits include the BAFTA-nominated World War II television documentary The Sinking of the Laconia.
The film’s director, Philipp Stoelzl, has made a name for himself with the German-language period movies North Face (2008) and Young Goethe in Love (2010), which managed to combine historical accuracy with local box-office success. Stoelzl’s English-language debut was The Expatriate, an action thriller starring Aaron Eckhart and Olga Kurylenko that premiered in 2011 at the American Film Market. But Physician, which Beta Cinema is shopping to buyers at the 2012 AFM, is his real international calling card.
“I’m sort of the guy for the big, opulent images movie,” says Stoelzl. “It’s something, to be honest, I think I do well. And in a film like this, you need really strong visuals. Look at Gladiator: Whatever you think of the story, Ridley Scott’s images made it a very powerful movie. Afterwards, everyone tried to do these Roman movies, and they were just a bunch of guys in skirts and sandals.”
On Physician, Stoelzl is hoping to avoid the “skirt-and-sandal” effect with a near-obsessive focus on visual aesthetics — hence the clouds of frankincense on set — and with extensive location work.
The director shot exteriors for the film in Morocco and in Eastern Germany, in one of the last 11th century castles still standing. Visual effects are coming from Pixomondo, Oscar winners for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the VFX team behind Game of Thrones.
That desire for authenticity led to a yearlong delay in production when the Arab Spring uprising put plans for a 2011 shoot in Morocco on hold.
“We couldn’t find a single insurance company that would cover us — it was too hot,” says Wolf Bauer, one of the film’s producers.
UFA and Stoelzl finally completed the Physician shoot — on budget — but the film remains a gamble. Gordon’s novel was a best-seller in Europe — Beta presold the film to Germany, Spain and Poland as well as Latin America in Cannes in May — but is largely unknown in the U.S. and U.K.
Critics have drawn comparisons with another midbudget medieval period adaptation: Pope Joan (2009) from UFA competitor Constantin Film. The film grossed an impressive $25 million in Germany but failed to deliver internationally.
Physician’s religious-themed subplot also could prove controversial. Western audiences might not appreciate being depicted as the barbarians to Sina’s enlightened Muslim, and religious fundamentalism of all sorts — Islamic, Jewish or Christian — doesn’t come off well in Stolzl’s telling of the tale. And despite the cachet of the supporting cast — with Hollywood regulars Kingsley and Skarsgard — the lead, Payne, is an unknown factor at the box office. His biggest role to date was as a supporting player in the HBO series Luck.
The film makes its pitch to the U.S. market at AFM, which runs Oct. 31 to Nov. 7. It’ll be up to buyers to determine whether the stench here in Cologne is actually the sweet smell of success.
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