' ' Cinema Romantico: Agora

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I'm no scientist (or mathematician) and if I'd lived in the 4th century I would have been one of those clowns who figured you could sail right off the end of the flat earth because I wouldn't have known any better, probably because I'd be too busy discussing the merits of the latest jaw harp album. I also know next to nothing about this period in history beyond the most common generalities. Did Hypatia, the noted greek astronomist and mathematician and philosopher really have a slave who was sort of in love with her? I kinda doubt it. And I kinda doubt that if/when Hypatia was accused of "believing in nothing" she strode forward, defiantly, and declared "I believe in philosophy" but so what? Scarlett O'Hara was less a woman of the Civil War Era then of the 1930's, when Margaret Mitchell's book was written, and people seemed okay with it. Our world at present could use a little more Hypatia.

The time: 391 A.D. The place: Alexandria, city of the Roman Empire. The situation: A brewing conflict between the old school pagans and the new school Christians. Meanwhile Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale), curator of The Great Library Of Alexandria, teaches at the Platonic school, were a couple of her male students, including Orestes (Oscar Issac), whom she will reject quite directly and graphically, pine for her, except her mind is all wrapped up in the motion of the planet earth, much more so than attempting to decipher if there are gods or God.

But that brewing conflict will finally come to a head when the Christians boldly besmirch the pagan gods which leads the pagans to gather swords and retaliate and so it's on like the Capulets and the Montagues except it turns out the Christians have safety in numbers and send the pagans retreating back to the the Great Library, though eventually the Roman Emperor will decree that the Christians are allowed to enter the Great Library and once they do all hell breaks loose as the pagans flee and the Christians destroy everything they can get their hands on.

Flash forward six years. Many pagans, including Orestes, have proclaimed themselves Christians, likely just to save their skins, but Hypatia is less concerned about that whole brew ha ha then she is with attempting to prove that the earth is a sphere that revolves around the sun and it's things like this that causes the Christian leader (Sami Samir) to question why Hypatia holds so much sway over Orestes.

Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar's 2009 historical epic has a whole lot going on and, frankly, is a film mainly about plot and ideas that prefers to have its characters strike extravagant poses in togas and orate than truly interact. There are, of course, many ways to interpret its plot and ideas and it could be read as an attack on Christianity by uptight Christians or an attack against intolerance or even an argument against or even for atheism when considering the film kind of portrays Hypatia as an atheist. But is/was she an aethiest? I haven't the foggiest. Perhaps she was just a pacifist? Perhaps she wanted to stay out of the troubles because she had more pressing things to attend to? Did she really want to play pagan/Christian wars out in the agora when she could sit indoors with a copy of "Poetics"?

Weisz's work here is really quite exemplary, the antithesis of what we are used to seeing in these sorts of films where everything is typically bold, sweeping gestures. This Hypatia looks like Rachel Weisz because, well, she has to, obviously, but she is essentially sexless. She's also not a Lady Macbeth nor a Queen Elizabeth. No, no, no, she's Hypatia. Everyone else in this movie schemes and preaches and preaches and schemes and throws stones but the decided indifference of Hypatia to everyone's swirling my-way-or-the-highway beliefs is the very essence of tolerance.


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, and a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context; but it 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 - a "reel vs. real" discussion – where I answer your question of whether or not Hypatia is an atheist…and many more.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Thank you. I do tend to get more interested in the real subject matter when I see movies like this one.