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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Agora (spoilers)

So. On Friday evening I watched Agora, a Spanish film directed by Alejandro Amenabar which came out in 2009. It purports to be the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, the first well-known woman astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician, as well as a morality tale of--depending on who you ask--pagan versus Christian and reason and science versus faith.

I think I will just point out that, for my money, these two interpretations are basically the same, with pagans coming down on the side of reason. Sorry, early Christianity--but pagans DID invent or discover most of what we're still using today toward scientific and rational ends.

I liked the movie, though I found it sort of uneven and oddly paced. People who know more about the topic than me note that the facts of Hypatia's story are up for debate, and that Amenabar takes liberties. But these issues are not really important; the significant bits of the film, which is to say most of it, are there and gleaming and horrifying and true. Still true. Religious groups clashing in violence in the name of their god (s)? CHECK! Religious groups clashing with "secular" governments in violence in the name of their god (s)? CHECK! Religious groups clashing with scientists in violence in the name of their god (s)? CHECK CHECK CHECK! No one comes off looking good in this story except perhaps Hypatia herself--the Jewish, Christian, and Roman-Egyptian pagans all do terrible things to one another: an eye for an eye is the rule of the day in ancient Alexandria.

Of course that is still true, too. It is still true that reactionary groups in my country and other countries care little about facts or scientific data and have no care at all for history. It is still true that pagan and indigenous religions are repressed, vilifed, and distrusted by mainstream religious groups, and scorned by secular ones. My, that was a lot of links! And there are far too many more instances of such events and language. Not much has changed from ancient times, it seems.

Beyond these themes, Agora also shows just how far we've come with regard to women in the public eye, women as instructors of men, women who are unmarried, and women with power. Hypatia is all of these things--a famed and respected philosopher and scientist, an instructor of male students, an unmarried, presumed virgin who publically rejects a male suitor, and a reasonably powerful voice in the agora and schools. At the film's outset she is at the height of her power, teaching science and astronomy to her students, defending the public peace with her voice, and speaking out for all religions. At the movie's climax, she is murdered by a mob, after being accused of witchcraft and seducing the Prefect--accusations backed up by the Christian leader's reading of certain passages from Paul. She is stripped by the mob--as ever men use women's bodies against them--called whore and witch. Hypatia represents for modern feminists an extant struggle: women in the workplace. Often blamed for not being assertive enough, for being too assertive, or for being too pretty, the fact of the matter is that in the United States, women in their workplaces still face plenty of discrimination and wage disparity and few laurels. Again, not much has changed.

And even beyond this, a topic very dear to my mind, Agora hit me one more time: the scene inside the Serapeum when the Christian mob sacks the library. A bit of history--the Serapeum or temple of Serapis hosted a portion of the legendary Library of Alexandria; it is not known how many texts were housed in the Serapeum. This temple, as well as Alexandria's other pagan sites, were sacked in 391 by order of Theophilus, the bishop of the city. In Agora, the Serapeum is sacked by the Christian group in order to get at the pagans barricaded inside. Regardless of historicity, this scene, as well as following scenes which show the destruction of the city's historical and cultural sites and the use of the Serapeum as a stable for animals, was totally shattering to me. That was the point when the tears started. As a librarian today, I see that this destruction is still going on, maybe not physically and with such violence, but the lack of care for preserving history and culture, for teaching and learning, is starkly evident in the US. Libraries all over the country are suffering, some, like the Camden, New Jersey system are closing all locations. For whatever reason, despite public libraries' intense usefulness, they are perennially on the top of the cut list when it's time to slash budgets.

Bottom line: Agora is a beautiful, provocative film. Just be prepared to be very depressed afterward.


faithljustice said...

A very thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, but a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context. As you point out, this is a fictionalized version of Hypatia's life. For more about the historical Hypatia, I recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

Diana said...

Faith: thank you so much for linking to your blog! Your "reel vs real" series is fascinating and wonderfully written. Something you point out about Amenabar's art is the use of "black-shirted, middle-eastern fanatics" intent on the destruction of civilization. I made some note of this when I was watching the film but it got lost in the overall stream of emotion. Looking back, I find it rather heavy-handed of him. I think his intention was to show that ALL fanatics, ultimately, have the same destructive aims, since the movie was not quite kind to the Jews or pagans either, but I venture that in the current state of global politics he might have been a bit subtler.

Still, it is a very striking and, I think, important movie.

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