Agora – Art 1/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 3/5
Agora, a Spanish film directed by Chilean Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, is far less than it wants to be and not a little presumptuous, but at the very least, it’s a breath of fresh air and a revisioning of the stuffy, traditional softness for Christendom and condemnation of Pagan excess. The story is the tragedy of the Alexandrine Greco-Roman philosopher Hypatia, whose death marks the decline of classical antiquity and the beginning of Medieval Europe. The rare female public figure was dragged to her death after the increasingly Christianized Egyptian state, governed by Roman Imperial Prefect Orestes suffered political friction with the ascendant Christian Patriarch Cyril, and both sought an appropriate outsider to blame much like all of Europe would have wished to throw Serbia into the sea in 1914.
Though a greater story could and should have been told, there are some redeemable aspects here. Weisz’s performance is, as usual, more than up to the task. The willingness to condemn Christian Rome in the wake of Constantine is a beautiful development as a general thrust away from the saccharine Catholic histories we’ve been subjected to for 17 centuries. The rich historical costume drama is modestly superior to your average sword and sandal epic that tries to awe with spectacle and fighting. Overall, the film is worth a look at the very least.
But strictly speaking, though Agora is an adequate and conventional film about antiquity, and I’m sort of forced to love that about it, its core premise and thus the heart of its entire project just sucks. It has a very ambitious and sweeping narrative, and fails to live up to its own gaudy designs. It attempts historical fiction to illuminate the conversation between science and faith today, where scientific thought is constantly on perilous ground thanks to backwards thinkers (and not just fundamentalist ones either), but the message straddles two profoundly different time periods while feverishly maintaining its coherence. That leaves it timeless in a negative sense of failure to be specific to either then or now, or honestly any time save for the Spanish Inquisition, to the point of near irrelevance.
Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia was not the “progressive” feminist and Carl Sagan-like scientist that writer/director Alejandro Amenábar purports. When the ancients fell off the cliff into the abyss of Christendom, they did so because they were a primitive people sacrificing chickens, messing around with animal blood and carcasses, and generally playing hopscotch from one crudely drawn meta-narrative to another. To get an idea on just how primitive these people were: the pivotal shift from Apollo and Jupiter to Jehova came because Jehova delivered in battle for Constantine, and the old gods failed to deliver for Julian “the Apostate”. And as with voting for totalitarian political parties, that’s a once-off kind of deal, and that’s all she wrote, as it were.
It wasn’t just the hoi polloi that were woefully ignorant either. Hypatia, though a highly accomplished teacher, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor, was still a child of her very ignorant and dark time. She subscribed to the beliefs of Neoplatonism, a variation on the already idealistic enough ancient philosophy of Plato that focused on the metaphysical with loopy mystical influence from Eastern and Jewish religious thought. When Augustine wrote City of God, he had been steeped in Neoplatonism so heavily, and it meshed so well with Christianity that he only had to modify a few things from the writings of Plotinus. Logos, or “reason”, which to many of the ancients was a kind of collective unconscious driven by some mystical supreme being, was constant from Plotinus through the Christians, just with different language and more forceful obedience to a new Hebrew text. Somewhere, Epicurus is still rolling in his grave over this. If Hypatia corresponds only to a degree with Carl Sagan, then it’s fair to say that she also corresponds with Madonna playing around at the Kabbalah Center.
So to frame a modern argument between science and faith around this woman is wishful thinking, and considering the demonization of Christians per se in the film (which I admittedly love for petty reasons), it’s really an unwelcome and glib contribution to the conversation. You don’t have to look to Edward Gibbon‘s salacious and blatantly anti-papist scrawl to understand that the whole story is too rich to be believed. The mindlessness of religious zealots and the bureaucracy of the Roman Church are very interesting avenues to explore, but are only touched upon with a superficial and precious stroke of the pen. Truly, we deserve better than this.
Those who observe thuggish Christians and the selflessness of Hypatia, and ironically see a Christ-like figure in her and prideful sinners in the ostensible Christians are so wide of the point as to make one depressed. The real Hypatia’s very Greek understanding of honor would see nothing admirable in the least about dying as a martyr for her beliefs, or an “athlete for God” as the Christian understanding would have it. Cross-pollination of the martyr mentality surely has its ironic effect, but Hypatia beaten and murdered by Christians is not martyrdom on her account, but unbridled helplessness and victimization as a woman discarded by society, both its secular and sacred institutions, as a “witch”. To credit her with martyrdom is something on the order of an insult that brushes aside the fact that she’s female, and neither the Greco-Roman culture nor the Abrahamic one overtaking it are at all easy with the idea of her being superior to any man. Though misogyny and male rage are unavoidable aspects of this story, it’s hard to say they’re given their due recognition.
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