18 March 2014

Agora -- death of a woman, and a world

The 2009 film Agora (starring Rachel Weisz, directed by Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar) tells the story of Hypatia (350?-415 CE), the last great intellectual of the Classical world.  A Greek by ethnicity and culture, Hypatia was born and lived most of her life in Alexandria, Egypt, the second-greatest city in the Roman Empire, though she was educated in Athens.  She lived through and experienced the last declining years of the Classical civilization, and some historians use the date of her murder to mark the end of the Classical period.

The film takes some liberties with the details of historical events, but captures very well the atmosphere of the time -- the atmosphere of a civilization in inexorable decline toward collapse and barbarism.  The Roman Empire still ruled the Mediterranean basin including Egypt, but its glory days were long past.  The government was already officially Christian, and the new religion was spreading rapidly, including in Alexandria.

Hypatia was a philosopher and, as the film stresses, a teacher, specializing in astronomy and geometry.  Her investigation and speculation on the structure of the solar system exemplified the free-thinking and evidence-based approach at the root of both Classical and modern science.  At one point, she uses a simple experiment involving a ship and a dropped weight to refute an argument that the Earth cannot be moving.  In the thousand years of darkness that followed the fall of the Classical world, truth would be sought by consulting sacred texts, not by observation and experiment.

Hypatia's father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is a major character in the film; a philosopher of note himself, he is fiercely devoted to his even more brilliant daughter.  In one scene, asked by a friend why he has not yet "married off" Hypatia, Theon replies, "Hypatia, subject to a man, with no freedom to teach or even speak her mind?  The most brilliant philosopher I know, having to give up her science?  No, that would be death to her."

In the end, she became a casualty of a struggle for power between Cyril (Sami Samir), the Christian Bishop of Alexandria, and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Prefect (governor) of Egypt, exemplifying the clash between the declining Roman civil authority and the rising power of the Christian religion.  Orestes had been a student of Hypatia's, and still sought her advice at times.  In this scene, Cyril uses a reading from the Bible to challenge Orestes:



A scene which was deleted but is on the DVD shows militant monks patrolling the streets and harassing "immodestly dressed" women, like the Saudi Mutawa or Iran's Basij.  But the film does not whitewash paganism.  In one scene, a pagan rabble-rouser whips up a crowd to attack Christians who have insulted the pagan gods; in another, Theon (shaken after witnessing a brutal killing by Christians) flogs one of his slaves who he has discovered is secretly a Christian.  There are also scenes of mob violence between Christians and Jews, with brutalities on both sides.  The point is that the Classical civilization was disintegrating in religious violence and fanaticism, while the declining Roman state was losing its power to perform the first duty of the state -- maintaining law and order.

Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob, hacked to death with what a historian described as "oyster shells", in fact probably sharp pottery shards or roofing tiles (the film replaces this with stoning).  In the film, a sympathetic Christian spares her the worst by strangling her beforehand; in fact, there's no evidence that such a mercy happened.

The film speculates that before her death, Hypatia deduced that the Earth's orbit around the Sun is elliptical rather than perfectly circular, the discovery then being lost until Kepler made the same deduction 1,200 years later.  In fact, we don't know what she was working on when she was killed, and none of her own writings have survived; but given her interest in conic sections and astronomy, and the great insights attributed to her by her contemporaries, it's not an unreasonable guess.

Sets, costumes, and performances are flawless, immersing the viewer in the ancient world.  Several times the film uses an interesting device of pulling back the camera to show Alexandria or even the whole Earth as seen from space -- a reminder of the vast reality waiting to be discovered by humans, despite the painful struggles obstructing progress.

I found the film disturbing at times, not only because of the relentless brutality and destruction, but because of the tragic quality of the senescence and imminent death of a great civilization.  The fact that a thousand years later the Renaissance would rediscover the Classical world's achievements, and build on them to make further progress, would have been little comfort to thinkers such as Hypatia even if they had known.  But the film achieves what it sets out to do.  This is what that era must really have been like.

3 Comments:

Blogger Ahab said...

Creative license notwithstanding, the film reminds us of why we must struggle against fanaticism in favor of reason, even today. The struggle continues, with so much at stake.

18 March, 2014 05:31  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Great review. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I look forward to seeing it.

"Hypatia's father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is a major character in the film; a philosopher of note himself, he is fiercely devoted to his even more brilliant daughter."

There was a similar respect by Galileo toward his daughter, Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, whom he described as: "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."

Of his three illegitimate children, one son and two daughters, he was most devoted to his eldest, Maria Celeste, (excellent name she chose) and exchanged many letters with her during his house arrest.

18 March, 2014 09:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: There are certainly people today who would like to bring the Dark Ages back.

Shaw: Thanks. I think you'd find it interesting.

Ancient Greek culture was not very female-friendly -- no society is perfect. It's fortunate that Hypatia had a father who supported her aspirations.

20 March, 2014 06:11  

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