June 8, 2010

Review: Agora

Posted in Other Reviews: Movies at 9:47 pm by

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar; written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil. Released in the United States in June 2010 by Newmarket Films. 126 min.

Note: Review contains spoilers

On Sunday I finally had the chance to see the long-awaited and much-anticipated movie Agora, now showing in limited release in the United States. Sad to say, while it was indeed a very good film, the experience proved to be something of a downer. I don’t know why this surprised me, considering that I knew going in that the story of Hypatia, the great female mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, would end in tragedy.

In the movie, Hypatia first appears as a teacher in the Serapeum of Alexandria, giving a lecture before her students. Although her class includes students of different ethnicities and religions, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the city, outside the classroom Alexandria is wracked by religious conflict and street violence as pagans and Christians struggle for dominance. Echoes of the tensions appear among her students as well, particularly between the pagan Orestes (who happens to be in love with Hypatia and is rather famously rejected) and the Christian Synesius. Hypatia, however, asserts that they are more similar than different: that being like her (presumably in their desire for knowledge) they are also like each other, and thus they are all brothers together. This is a bitter irony for the slave Davos, who serves Hypatia’s family and is also desperately in love with her — though Hypatia treats him with great kindness, doctoring his wounds after he receives a whipping from her father and encouraging his own scholarly efforts, he will never be her equal. On the streets of Alexandria, Davos encounters the rabble-rousing Christian monk Ammonius, who introduces him to the message of the Gospel and the practice of charity for the poor and needy, opening his eyes to a different view of the world.

The city descends into an cycle of increasingly brutal retaliation: pagan leaders respond to Christian mockery of their gods with a bloody massacre in the marketplace, and the Christians in turn besiege the pagans in the Serapeum. Although the Roman emperor pardons the pagans, he orders that the Serapeum be turned over to the Christians. The scholars barely escape, clutching the few scrolls and treasures that they were able to save, before the crowd overruns the buildings and begins destroying them. Davos, torn between his unrequited love for Hypatia and the fierce injustice of being her slave, ultimately leaves her and joins the Christian side, taking out his anger and frustrations along with the rest of the mob.

Some years later, with the power of the pagans in Alexandria broken, the Christians under the leadership of the bishop Cyril engage in a similar struggle with the Jews and finally overcome them, driving them from the city. Hypatia, though now only permitted to teach children, continues her personal studies and her research into the movement of the heavenly bodies; she also speaks out publicly against the havoc caused by the Christians, urging her former student Orestes, now also a Christian and prefect of Alexandria, to take a stand against them. Cyril attempts to force Orestes to silence her, and as Orestes struggles to reconcile the demands of his religion with his enduring love and respect for Hypatia, Cyril’s monks seize her from the street, drag her to a church, and strip her naked, planning to stone her to death. Davos, coming too late to warn her, can do nothing for her but ease her passing.

I think that part what brought me down, beyond the atrocity of Hypatia’s murder, was that on some level I had gone into this movie hoping to see a vision of what was, or what might have been, a vision of pagan grandeur, of a way of living. But by the time the story of Agora begins, the social decay has already progressed too far. The pagans are a fading elite, clinging to ancient glory and painfully out of touch with the majority of the people who inhabit their city (one scholar, during the siege of the Serapeum, wonders in bewilderment, “When did there get to be so many Christians?”), while the Christians are primarily an uneducated mob fueled by poverty and need and a seething resentment born of past persecution, and are easily manipulated by their charismatic leader. The Jews, determined to fight back, fall into the same pattern of retribution and are unable to overcome the Christian ascendency. Amidst the chaos, Hypatia is a light of reason, but an isolated one, largely abstracted by her studies and without any real power, and further handicapped by her gender in what is all too obviously a man’s world.

I went in looking for an answer but walked out with only questions. Is it possible for one person, or even a small group of people, to stand against the current of the times, to check the tide of the masses? If Hypatia had turned the brilliant mind that could unravel the mysteries of the heavens toward resolving the conundrum of Alexandria’s religious turmoil, would it have made any difference in the end? Or if she had gone under cover, keeping the light of science and philosophy alive in secret somewhere, might she have survived? And in either case, would it have meant denying herself, her true work — and would it ultimately have been worth the cost to her? Late in the movie, Hypatia says sadly to her former student Synesius, now Bishop of Cyrene, who has offered her his protection if she will allow herself be baptised as a Christian, “You cannot question what you believe in. I…must.

Agora is very powerful in its depiction of people caught in untenable circumstances. Orestes writhes against the requirements of the faith he originally chose for pragmatic purposes. Davos is a particularly striking and at times unnerving example, his conflicted feelings for Hypatia an unsettling mix of desire and violence, his hope in the Church drowning in the harsh reality of its actions. Hypatia herself, beautiful and brilliant, is wrenched between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of politics and bloodshed; and she is lost too in the divide between male and female. Unable to live circumscribed by traditional women’s roles and still pursue her work, she moves as a solitary woman among men. (It’s rather sad that a movie focusing on a feminist icon fails entirely to pass the Bechdel test — I don’t think Hypatia even exchanges words with another woman during the whole movie.) Yet at the same time she is never truly one of them, as is shown poignantly in a scene where she listens from another room, clutching Orestes’ futile love gift, while her father Theon and his friends discuss her. In her study of the orbits of the planets, she is a woman seeking completeness, seeking purity of form, seeking a center in a world where the center no longer holds. And the answer she eventually finds — the ellipse, with its twin focal points — is an astounding metaphor for balance, for duality held in dynamic relationship. Perhaps it brings her peace. At the end of the movie, when she leaves Orestes and walks out into the city alone, without her guards, there’s a quiet majesty to her, slim and upright in her red Greek dress among the blue robes and head wrappings of the crowd, as if she moves in her own orbit, serene and true to herself even in the midst of her contradictions. Though mere minutes later she is seized and carried off to her humiliation and death, in that moment, she is complete in herself.

The movie itself is visually interesting and lovely. The sets — particularly of the Serapeum — made this Kemetic very happy, and sad, too, seeing them ultimately destroyed, especially the hacked-up faces of the Hethert columns. (In one particularly subtle touch by the filmmakers, just after Bishop Cyril reads a passage from the scripture about how women should be subject to men’s rule and remain silent, the camera cuts to an exterior view of the temple, catching a column that depicts Hethert holding out her menat necklace to the king.) A close-up shot of some ants outside the besieged Serapeum foreshadows a later aerial view of the Christians overrunning the complex, the film speeded up to show them as small, frenetically moving black dots, like insects themselves. And shots of the globe seen from space intercut the movie, jarring at first in a historical film but actually surprisingly evocative of its themes. Showing unique perspectives of the earth — a vertical axis of east-west, rather than the usual north-south; or crossing the Mediterranean and looking south along the Nile — they challenge us to look beyond our preconceptions just as Hypatia looked beyond hers. To see the world as it is, in all its complexity, not a single static perfection but a wanderer like all the other planets — to look at things from a new angle, from one of the many different views that somehow reconcile into a whole.

In short, Agora is definitely worth seeing, not just for the historical spectacle, but for the searching questions it raises, and the personal process of coming to terms with them. And maybe, in the end, there are some answers hidden here after all.