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Atheists Pack Theaters For Controversial Movie About Execution Of Renaissance Philosopher
March 2, 2004
Satire by David Albrecht

Theaters across America were packed on Wednesday for the long-anticipated release of "Giordano Bruno", the controversial movie about the life of the Italian scientist and philosopher executed by the Inquisition in 1600. The film, directed by noted scientist, skeptic and author Richard Dawkins, is a brutally realistic portrayal of the last ten days of Bruno's life. In particular, the graphically violent climactic scenes of Bruno being tortured and then burned at the stake sparked controversy long before the movie's release.

Critical reviews have been mixed so far. David Denby of the New York Times noted that "Although the literal experience of Bruno's final days are rendered with admirable skill, and often with overwhelming visceral force, we learn little about what made him such a threat to the establishment of his time. While Bruno (played with admirable stamina by Brendan Fraser) shows flashes of genius and charisma when Dawkins allows his character to do so, he too often flickers and vanishes in a howling horror chamber of Grand Guignol special effects."

Even so, secular, agnostic and atheistic audiences have been filling seats and box-office coffers since the film's release. In many cases, entire classes of high school chemistry and physics students, accompanied by their teachers, have shown up for the highly publicized opening, despite its harsh, jarring violence. Many interviewed leaving the theater after a recent Philadelphia showing were in tears, stunned by the raw force of Dawkins' presentation. Bruce Dufresne, a local physicist at Temple and an avowed agnostic, found it an overwhelming experience: "I was stunned, simply stunned. It's one thing to read about it, but it's another to see it as if you were in the same dungeon as Giordano." His wife Virginia, an atheist, seemed torn between sorrow and anger. "It was anger that I felt - anger that he told the truth and died for that truth."

Bruno, born in 1548, remains a somewhat controversial figure in the history of science. Much of his academic career was spent as an itinerant scholar, working for any monarch with an interest in science, astronomy and navigation. Although he agreed with the then-novel Copernican theory that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the other way around, many later scholars have criticized his somewhat slipshod work in the natural sciences and astronomy. Even so, Bruno was among the first to espouse the idea of a truly vast universe, in which the Earth was but one planet among many. This view, explicated in the dialogue "Del Infiniro", was one of many reasons that Bruno was found guilty of blasphemy, immoral conduct and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology. He was burned at the stake in Rome on 17 February 1600. Legend has it that when a priest offered him a crucifix through the flames that surrounded him, Bruno thrust it away.

Some have feared that an anti-Catholic bias would pervade the production, and perhaps the public reaction to the movie. Chicago Sun-Times movie Roger Ebert noted that "Leering, corpulent bishops figure prominently in the trial sequences, particularly when Bruno refuses to recant. The figures representing the Inquisition, particularly the torturers are so over-the-top as to approach parody at times." However, Ebert downplayed the film's potential for inciting religious strife. "I think that people are going to see what they want to see in this movie. Personally, I didn't think it presented an anti-Catholic worldview."

Whatever Americans' interpretation of this dark and powerful work, continued controversy and boffo box office seem as inescapable for "Bruno" as gravity is for a planet orbiting its sun.

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