By Nicholas Nicastro
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 herher chastityis 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
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, includingto
its creditIthaca'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.
Nicholas Nicastro at his Facebook author's page, Books by Nicholas
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