The Physician (Der Medicus): Berlin Review

"The Physician"
An ambitious and gorgeously mounted period film set in 11th century Persia that mostly avoids senseless CGI battles if not all period-film clichés.

Philipp Stoelzl's epic film, set in medieval Europe and Persia, stars Tom Payne, Ben Kingsley and Stellan Skarsgard and is based on the bestseller by Noah Gordon.

BERLIN -- A Christian orphan from an 11th-century English mining town disguises himself as a Jew so he can study medicine in Islamic Persia in The Physician (Der Medicus), a lavishly mounted period epic that often has more lofty pursuits on the brain than simply drifting from one CGI battle to the next -- though this doesn’t mean it manages to avoid every screenwriting cliché in the book.

Based on the eponymous work of Massachusetts-born novelist Noah Gordon, which was not a big hit stateside but became a colossal bestseller in especially Germany and Spain, The Physician stars Ben Kingsley as Ibn Sina, the Persian philosopher and medical scholar whose treatises were so influential they were still taught in European universities five centuries later. German director Philipp Stoelzl, who brought a refreshingly modern swagger to the romantic and largely fictitious biopic Young Goethe in Love, is a good fit for the material and it helps that the young leads, Tom Payne and Emma Rigby, are easy to root for and easy on the eyes.

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The 2.5-hour film, which also exists as a longer, two-part mini-series, has made a combined $44 million in Germany and Spain since it opened there theatrically on Christmas Day. But selling a period film that juxtaposes anatomy lessons and religious clashes will be tough in territories where the book isn’t a known quantity, so numbers there will be more in the range of Alejandro Amenabar’s equally brainy Agora rather than star-studded battle epics such as Gladiator

The pic opens with the traumatic passing of the mother of the young and now parentless Rob Cole (Adam Thomas Wright), who might look like a street urchin but who discovers he’s got a gift: he can tell when people are close to death. He’s apprenticed to a grouchy barber (Stellan Skarsgard), who not only cuts hair but acts as a rudimentary physician of sorts, though this being the year 1021, crude amputations and the use of leeches are about as sophisticated as it gets. Thankfully, his mother's death fuels Cole’s interest in actual healing and medicine, and his telepathic gift is only a minor part of the plot.

Once he’s absorbed the little medical knowledge of his teacher, the grown-up Cole (Payne) decides to travel to Isfahan, Persia, to study with the “doctor of doctors,” Ibn Sina (Kingsley). The trip’s an arduous one full of sacrifices that include his own foreskin: In Egypt, kneeling in front of a scenic, moonlit stretch of desert sand near the pyramids, Cole circumcises himself so he can pass for a Jew, as Christians aren’t welcomed in the Muslim lands but Jews are tolerated, if barely.

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German screenwriter Jan Berger (of the sharp vampire satire We Are the Night) takes quite a few liberties with both the historical record and Gordon’s novel, though, especially during the first hour, his take on the material is streamlined and the characters emerge fluidly from the rather complex socio-historical background. There are some hiccups along the way, however, such as when Cole, now calling himself Jesse ben Benjamin, joins a caravan to cross the desert and meets a lovely and literate Jewish woman from Spain, Rebecca (Rigby). Their sort-of courtship and the sandstorm that’ll separate them feel like they’ve been simply reduced to movie-cliché shorthand (they might be more fleshed out in the mini-series).

The bulk of the film’s 2.5 hours is set in production designer Udo Kramer’s gorgeously conceived Isfahan and more particularly at the madrassa where Ibn Sina teaches and Jesse manages to get a place after initially being rejected (something milked for gentle comedy, as is the fact he’s initially clueless about Jewish traditions). Friendships with fellow students are born, Cole shows his teacher he’s a student who might one day surpass his master and people from his past show up unexpectedly in the film’s midsection, which features a good eye for details that enliven the story and characters.

The rising military threat of the aggressive Seljuks, who have their eye on Isfahan and who try to align themselves with the mullahs inside the city who detest the Shah (Olivier Martinez), a guileful ruler who facilitates places such as Ibn Sina’s madrassa but also violently crushes any kind of civil disobedience, turn the film’s third act into a war-tinged finale and one that should, at least theoretically, bring out the film’s underlying exploration of religious themes.

Unfortunately, they’re treated too hastily -- again, at least in the feature version -- to get a good idea of how religion is co-opted by the bad guys or how it’s helping the good guys. This is a shame, as the groundwork for some provocative parallels to the modern world are certainly there (especially costume designer Thomas Olah manages to suggest how, in medieval times, England was much more backward than the Orient).

Kingsley and Skarsgard could do these roles in their sleep but certainly are awake for all of this film. Payne, meanwhile, puts his piercing, blue-green eyes to good use, even if he never quite manages to overcome Rob's somewhat plain leading-man qualities. The supporting cast is filled with people delivering strong work, including Michael Marcus and Elyas M’Barek as two student friends of Jesse’s.

The score of Stoelzl’s regular composer, Ingo Frenzel, is old-fashioned and somewhat bland, while the cinematography of Hagen Bogdanski (The Beaver, The Lives of Others) is color-corrected to such an extent yellow desert sand is practically orange, though, with a few exceptions, the integration of special effects with location work done in Germany and Morocco is seamless.

Production companies: UFA, Beta Cinema, ARD Degeto, Universal Pictures Germany
Cast: Tom Payne, Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgard, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby, Elyas M’Barek, Fahri Yardim, Makram Khoury, Michael Marcus, Michael Jibson, Adam Thomas Wright
Director: Philipp Stoelzl
Screenwriter: Jan Berger, screenplay based on the novel by Noah Gordon
Producers: Nico Hofmann, Wolf Bauer
Executive producers: Ulrich Schwartz, Sebastian Werninger
Director of photography: Hagen Bogdanski
Production designer: Udo Kramer
Music: Ingo Frenzel
Costume designer: Thomas Olah
Editor: Sven Budelmann
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 155 minutes.