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Movie review: AGORA

In the library the other day, I happened upon a DVD of a movie called Agora, which caught my interest because it was about Hypatia of Alexandria, the philosopher/astronomer who’s the most (and probably only) famous female scholar of the Hellenistic age, and whose murder has been cited by some as the downfall of that age and the beginning of the Dark Ages.  I’ve been interested in Hypatia’s story ever since I learned about her from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and apparently so was the film’s director, Alejandro Amenábar.  He started out wanting to make a film about the history of astronomy from Hypatia to Einstein, but ended up focusing specifically on Hypatia and the Alexandria she lived in, but as a microcosm representing a much larger story.

The film is a Spanish production, but has a multinational cast and crew and is in English.  It stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, beginning in her youth as a lecturer at the Library of Alexandria (or rather, the Serapeum, where the surviving texts were brought when the original Library was burned in Caesar’s time), where she lectured and taught disciples of both pagan and Christian faiths, and was caught in the middle as tensions between the faiths erupted into violence, ultimately leading to the trashing of the Library by decree of the (Christian) Roman emperor.  It then jumps forward to the final years of her life, in which she was a chief advisor to the city’s prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and thus came under challenge by Bishop Cyril (Sammy Samir), who objected to a pagan (and according to the film, a woman) advising the now-Christian city’s ruler.  Ultimately Hypatia was killed by a mob, and her teachings, like the contents of the Library, were lost to posterity.

The film does a marvelously researched and detailed job recreating 4th/5th-century Alexandria, as is fascinatingly discussed in the DVD’s hourlong making-of feature, and is made with considerable naturalism and verisimilitude.  But it should not be mistaken for an accurate account of Hypatia’s life and death.  As I said, the film uses these events as a microcosm or symbol of the history of science and the transition from the Hellenistic era to the Dark Ages, so a lot of historical liberties are taken.  The timeline is compressed, the main characters not significantly aging even though the two halves of the film represent events that came some 24 years apart.  Hypatia’s friend Synesius (Rupert Evans), whose letters represent the principal historical source for Hypatia’s life, is present in the film until the end even though the real Synesius died two years before her.  Orestes is consolidated with another, unnamed figure from history, a suitor whom Hypatia rejected in a rather infamous way that’s depicted in the film.  The second lead, Max Minghella, plays a fictional character, Davus, who starts out as Hypatia’s adoring slave and then joins the Christians and pretty much goes through the film not being sure what side he’s on; if anything, he’s sort of a personification of the zeitgeist of Alexandria itself, a viewpoint character through whom the audience can follow the shifting political and cultural forces pulling the city in multiple directions.  Most of all, Hypatia herself is shown anticipating millennia of scientific progress, starting out a firm believer in the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe but gradually coming around to Aristarchus’s heliocentric model and even making Kepler’s breakthrough, realizing that the orbits of the planets are ellipses rather than circles, only to be killed before she can pass the insight on to posterity.  (The film’s POV periodically rises into space, looking down on the Earth, reminding us of the cosmic truths that Hypatia seeks and the other characters in the film remain ignorant of.)

Is this too great a break from reality?  Not necessarily, though it’s a stretch.  Hypatia’s work and writings were lost to history, as many insights of the ancient Greeks were lost to the Western world for thousands of years (though the Muslim world retained and expanded on a lot of it — it’s important to remember that the Dark Ages were a phenomenon of Western Europe, not the entire world [EDIT 7/27/2019: Or rather, that the “Dark Ages” didn’t even exist, but were invented after the fact by Renaissance historians who glorified Greece and Rome and assumed the age after their fall was automatically “dark.”]).  Hypatia’s expertise in astronomy and geometry gave her the necessary grounding, so if anyone in the period could’ve figured it out, it’s believable that she could have.  What gives me the most pause is the scene showing her conducting an experiment to prove the existence of inertia, supporting the idea that the Earth could move and we couldn’t detect the motion because our frame of reference moves with it.  The thing is, the main reason Hellenistic science fell short of the modern breakthroughs it was on the verge of reaching was that it was a slavery-based society.  The intellectuals who did the thinking considered actually doing things, building things and performing work and so forth, to be the business of slaves, beneath their notice, so they didn’t have the mindset to consider practical experimentation useful as a means of testing their hypotheses.  And the movie does portray Hypatia as taking the institution of slavery for granted.  Then again, the crux of its portrayal of the character is her ability to question her preconceptions, so maybe she could’ve overcome that prejudice along with her Ptolemaic prejudices.

And that’s pivotal.  The film’s portrayal of Hypatia anticipating Kepler isn’t meant to be historically accurate, but symbolic.  For one thing, it symbolizes all the unknowable works, writings, and insights of the ancients that were tragically lost when the Library of Alexandria was sacked, when Hellenistic knowledge was condemned as paganism and destroyed, when great minds like Hypatia were persecuted and killed.  With so much of their work lost to posterity, who knows what they might have discovered?  More fundamentally, it symbolizes the theme of the film.  All around Hypatia, throughout Alexandria, characters of all faiths are preoccupied with the purity and perfection of their beliefs to the degree that they feel driven to persecute, expel, or murder those who believe differently, and thereby completely miss the point of their beliefs.  And yet Hypatia’s scientific quest leads her to realize that the surface we stand on may not be fixed, that our perceptions may be relative to our frame of reference, and that there may be more than one center of all things.  Her discoveries in the film may be anachronistic, but they symbolize the film’s message about the folly of dogmatism and intolerance, and they echo her own willingness, even need, to question and move beyond what she believes.

Apparently some have denounced the film as anti-Christian, but I don’t think that’s true.  Pagans, Christians, and Jews are all shown persecuting and attacking people of other faiths, and there are decent characters of all faiths who are defined by their willingness to look beyond religious categories and accept those who disagree.  So it’s not against any one religion, it’s against the abuse of religion as an excuse for intolerance and persecution.  Indeed, the film is full of morally ambiguous characters, people who are capable of the best and worst of humanity.  A key example is Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), leader of a Christian group called the Parabalani, who goes from standing by while his followers toss a pagan into a firepit in one scene to encouraging Davus to give food to the starving beggars in another.  Even Hypatia, whose portrayal is largely hagiographic (Amenábar even admits to painting her as a secular Christ figure), has the flaw of accepting slavery, and even though she’s mostly kind to her slave Davus, it’s her casual condescension that ultimately drives him to join the Christian mob.   The one character who isn’t ambiguous is Bishop Cyril, the main antagonist of the film’s second half.  He comes off as menacing, manipulative, and hateful, a man who lives to persecute those who don’t fit his standards of purity and keeps narrowing those standards until he’s turning against fellow Christians for not being pure enough.  Indeed, he’s even given a speech wherein he condemns a Jewish attack on the Parabalani by declaring, a bit metatextually and heavy-handedly, that the Jews must be exiled and condemned until the end of time.  Now, what I’ve read about Cyril and his role in the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia doesn’t exactly incline me positively toward him, but there are plenty of characters in this film who commit horrendous acts and still have a sympathetic side, while even the idealized Hypatia is given one or two flaws.  This isn’t a film about good vs. evil, but about human fallibility, about people struggling to figure out the right thing to do and often screwing it up massively.  So the one-dimensionally villainous portrayal of Cyril seems out of place.

Overall, though, I think Agora is an excellent film, so long as you don’t take it as accurate history but make the effort to do the research and listen to the commentary (which is in Spanish with subtitles — I just turned off the commentary audio and read the subtitles along with the film’s regular audio track) and understand where and why the film diverges from known history.  Rachel Weisz is superb as Hypatia, a woman who’s cool and logical as would befit a woman filling a traditionally male role in 4th-century Alexandria, but who still has a restrained passion and joy about science that captivates the viewer.  At least, I found it exciting to watch her discovering inertia and figuring out elliptical orbits, but I enjoy watching the scientific process.  (And they did mostly avoid the House, MD school of random epiphany substituting for deductive reasoning; there were a couple of scenes where Hypatia had a sudden insight based on something she or someone else said in a conversation, but at least the conversations were about reasoning through the problems she was trying to crack.)  The director said he saw her story as a love story between Hypatia and the universe, and Weisz plays that well (albeit to the dismay of her merely human suitors who are unable to compete with the stars).  The rest of the cast is strong as well, particularly Ashram Barhof, who makes Ammonius a lively and funny character who’s appealing despite the awful acts he performs (though really, I’d think someone with such a rich sense of humor about his faith wouldn’t be so dogmatic about it).  The production values are excellent, particularly the recreation of classical Alexandria on a scale that’s remarkable for a modestly-budgeted film (I was surprised to learn from the making-of feature how much of the city was actually built rather than digitally created).  And basically it’s cool to see a film that’s about both science and history, two of my primary interests, and particularly to see a film about Hypatia, to get a conjectural glimpse of what this pivotal yet little-known figure from history might have been like.

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