VIZ. ARTS
Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

The Secular Saint
(Agora, 10/25/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

Secularists can have heroes, but not saints. Yet what else can we call Hypatia of Alexandria, the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician? Intellectual heroes are usually remembered for some message, some disposition that might ideally be boiled down to a few bullet-points. All we know about Hypatia is that she was brilliant, she was thought beautiful, and she was dismembered alive by a mob of crazed Christian monks in the 4th century AD. Since her fate was first popularized in Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), she has become an immortal symbol of the struggle of reason against religious zealotry, right up there with persecution of Galileo and the Scopes monkey trial.
      None of these historical lacunae has stopped Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar (The Sea Inside, The Others) from giving us Hypatia's story in his new film, Agora. The philosophetrix is played by the decidedly unbookish Rachel Weisz, seen puttering around a lavishly recreated Great Library of Alexandria like one of those bedraped maidens in a Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting. She is adored by not a few of her male students, of course, most notably Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a pampered but vain noble, and Davus (Max Minghella), a slave with intellectual ambitions. One of the few known biographical details about her—her chastity—is reflected here in the famous story of how she shocked Orestes from his romantic illusions by presenting him with a rag stained with her menstrual blood. "Nothing beautiful about this, is there?" she says, playing skillfully to both his sense of male superiority and his male squeamishness.
      Alas, not even chaste pagans are respected in fourth century Alexandria, where the streets were ruled by roving mobs of Christian thugs. Amenábar pictures them, quite accurately, as much like the modern Taliban. When Orestes and Davus convert to Christianity, Hypatia's veil of protection unravels, leading her to her fated appointment with her sanctimonious murderers. As Amenábar implausibly portrays it, she is killed just after she has managed to intuit the true physical position of the earth in the solar system. No one, he says, would recreate her breakthrough until Kepler, twelve centuries later.
      There's a lot for faithful Christians to hate in this movie. In addition to lunatic monks like Ammonius (played, with admirable energy, by Ashraf Barhom), we get perfidious bishops, hypocritical converts who renounce paganism only for political convenience, and mobs of cross-wearing ignoramuses who burn scholars and scrolls with equal relish. Indeed, the film suggests that the righteous anti-paganism of the early Christians was just a rehearsal for its anti-Semitism. Beyond that, the persecution of fellow Christians who won't toe the orthodox political line is inevitable.
      Some have already complained that Agora promotes a virulently anti-Christian agenda. More accurately, it advances a "let's not burn books" agenda. Christian apologists scarcely have much to complain about in the way they have been portrayed in most Hollywood historical epics. From The Ten Commandments to Ben-Hur and beyond, the rise of Christianity in antiquity has long been presented as peaceful and inevitable, when it was in fact neither. It was nasty, bloody business, and Amenábar deserves credit for getting at the truth.
      Fear of a conservative backlash is almost certainly one reason why Agora, despite its wide European release and its Hollywood cast, was hardly seen by anybody in the US. It played just two or three screens at a time nationwide, including—to its credit—Ithaca's own Cinemapolis. To be sure, as long as the hero isn't crippled or schizophrenic, Americans don't care for intellectual histories at the multiplex. Agora's history isn't perfect, and despite its sanguinary subject it seems a little bloodless. It certainly could have used an actress with more commanding presence in the lead (Abbie Cornish, perhaps?). But that it got made at all is a kind of small miracle. St. Carl Sagan would have approved.

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©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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