Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hypatia or Woody?

AGORA means an open place of assembly -- for public meetings and pronouncements, for a market. Alexandria is in north-central Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea. In the fifth century, when the story of Agora takes place, it was part of the declining Roman Empire. Christians were no longer hunted or forced to fight to the death -- it was legal to be a Christian anywhere in the Roman Empire, and it was becoming downright popular.

Hypatia of Alexandria was an upper class Greek, a “pagan” philosopher and intellectual, a mathematician, a teacher. Also, and this is the unusual part, a woman. That’s also why she was murdered by Christian mobs of Alexandria under “Pope” Cyril. At least as director Alejandro Amenábar saw it.

But I get ahead of myself. A Neoplatonist, Hypatia taught young men from various backgrounds and religions, and had a following worthy of any scholar / philosopher. Now think “Dark Ages.” No, they hadn’t come yet in the time of Hypatia or on her continent, but they are illustrative of the way the Christian church fathers, founders, and followers thought of inquiring minds, intelligence, education, and questions. Not to mention women.

Agora, directed and co-written by Alejandro Amenábar (with Gil Mateo) is about religious fundamentalism, fear, hatred, and misogyny. This film is clearly a reaction to Western reaction against Islam, since all the actions taken by the Christians in this film are those Westerners believe are being reenacted by Muslims – against people of other religions, and against women. And let’s not forget Zionism.

Yes, the film is heavy handed.

Amenábar goes out to space to bring us through the desert to the sea and port of Alexandria. It’s a very tan film – the city, the streets, are all the color of sand. The Christians stand out -- when the black-clothed Christians are destroying the “library” (which was not just a building full of books – it was a public place, a temple, a school) the camera flies back up to a birds’ eye view, showing all the little black antlike creatures jerking around, mindlessly destroying everything in their paths. Statues are pulled down (sound familiar?). Eventually the sanctum of knowledge becomes a habitat for sheep. People formerly prey of the powerful become predators. There are no good Christians in this film.

Alexandria was a city of Christians, Pagans, and Jews. During the reign of Pope Cyril, the Jews not murdered were driven out of Alexandria, and most of the Pagans were forced to become Christians. Also during said reign, a Christian mob of indeterminate size and allegiances murdered Hypatia. Perhaps she was skinned alive, perhaps she was stoned to death, perhaps she was dragged through the streets behind a chariot – however she died, it was public and horrific. And it wasn’t just because she was a Pagan. It was because she was a woman who did not keep silent. A woman who was the intellectual equal of any man and superior to most.

Every bit of self-righteous anger that could be nudged to fury, Amenábar jabbed. It is not possible to ever know how historically inaccurate or accurate any of his choices were – Hypatia died in approximately 415 C.E., and histories were written by men, all of whom had their own points to press, their own theories to justify.

Amenábar chose romantic devices to tell the story – in Agora, one of Hypatia’s followers/students is quite publicly and vocally in love with her, and her slave is silently in love with her. The student is Orestes, who will, in later years, convert to Christianity and become prefect of Alexandria. The slave is Davus, who converts to Christianity and becomes a murderer. Another student is already a Christian called Synesius and will grow up to be bishop of Cyrene. Orestes and Synesius were real people. Their actions in this film are the stuff that films are made of – fiction.

The actors:

  • Rachel Weisz is remarkably good casting for Hypatia. Her intelligence, her stillness, her sudden smile of wonder and joy at discovering a new idea, a new angle – this was just right, humanizing the intellectual woman who never married in an age when all women of good birth married. Of course not – what happens when a woman marries? She is silenced. Who could silence Hypatia? Even her father (nicely played by Michael Lonsdale) would not dream of using his privilege to marry her off – she would no longer be Hypatia, an honored and renowned scholar.
  • Orestes is very well played by Oscar Isaac, from the aristocratic would-be lover to the Prefect in crisis.
  • The slave Davus is played by Max Minghella – from loyal, brave, and adoring of his mistress Hypatia, to the angry militant Christian.
  • The most evil creature in the film, Ammonius, is frighteningly played over the top by Ashraf Barhom. To a modern audience, this man’s a lunatic, a trickster, a bully, and a thug. To the people around him, he was supposedly devout. Just because one can quote Scripture…..you know the rest.
  • Cyril is well played by Sami Samir, who looks disturbingly like Ashraf Barhom. At first I thought the hooligan from the streets was becoming a bishop. Close enough.
  • Synesius was perhaps too quietly played by Rupert Evans. He’s so level he becomes dull -- until the last few moments he’s on screen, when something ugly comes into his eye. That moment was worth waiting for.

Visually Amenádar spends the last third of the film shooting through ellipses and circles. By this time, Hypatia has figured out that the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system didn’t make sense. She solved the riddle. Another heresy, of course.

The film is essentially in two parts, and is clunkier for it. The story is interrupted by years of uneasy peace between factions. In a landscape of desert tans, the captions explaining what happens in the passage of time are in light brown. Pretty, but hard to read. Over the years the Christians became more and more powerful, pagans less so.

Pretty hopeless species, humankind is. We never learn. We never grow. We never get better. Mr. Amenádar is pretty depressing.

I’m glad I saw this film. It sent me back to a book I read years ago—Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska. And I always think analyzing the flaws of a film is more educational than extolling the virtues. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend Agora. It is didactic, intellectually cluttered, over the top. Just for diehard fans of Ms. Weisz.

On the other hand, a film I can easily recommend to absolutely anyone is ToyStory3. There’s absolutely no reason for it to be in 3-D –- except the obvious reason, of course, charging us twice to see a film once – but it’s a fine story, engrossing, well drawn characters, funny, sweet, oh just go see it. In 2-D if you can.


  1. A very thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I agree Amenabar does get a bit heavy handed and he certainly distorts history in service to his art (the Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. I don't go to the movies for history.

    I'm glad you've read the Dzielska book - it's one of my favorites and I always recommend it for people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia. I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com) - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

    Loved Toy Story 3, as well. Warning to high school graduates: don't see this film with your parents! My husband and I sniffed through the whole last half hour.

  2. Hi faithljustice, thanks for your comment and the link to your blog. I concur, of course -- one mustn't hope to learn any history at the movies or at the theatre. If anyone reads the Dzielska book because you or I mention it, we can be happy for that.