Movie Monday: Agora (2009)

One of the assignments in my history class is to write an article on a single individual from ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt: this comes early in the year when we’re dealing with the ancient world. Because there’s so much out there about Julius Caesar or whoever, I try always to put a little extra effort into providing some female choices. Even so, it isn’t easy; I always get like six essays every year about Cleopatra, presumably because female students who want to write about a woman from history (and before you get all huffy, the male students always write about men but no one makes a big deal out of it) don’t have too many options in terms of sources they can easily access.

Which brings me to Hypatia of Alexandria, another popular choice. I suspect she’s popular largely because of this film, which some of them may have seen.



So, anyway, this movie is about the said Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, as you can see), and more generally about the conflict between paganism and Christianity in the Roman empire of the 4th century. There are some historical inaccuracies, for sure, but I think this film has some elements that make it well worth seeing.

Sadly, this might mean that my review will not be very funny.

Anyway, so we have Hypatia, who is a philosopher and mathematician. She has an indulgent old father, an ambitious young suitor and a slave who loves her from afar. Religious tensions between Christians and pagans lead to violence, in which her various supporting characters wind up on various sides. This culminates in the destruction of the library of Alexandria. We flash forward a couple of years, and now the main conflict is between Christians and Jews. Hypatia is continuing to puzzle out how a heliocentric universe is working, which translates into various philosophical malarkey about “the centre.” And then it all goes wrong.

Now, my perspective on this is mainly as a historical film, but I should say that it has the problem common to almost all films about science and mathematics, which is that the process of doing math is not exactly very visual. So the story is told in a series of sudden flashes of insight, which is not, as I understand it, how things really work. On the other hand, philosophers of the ancient world did continually use mathematical or scientific theory to prove bullshit aesthetic or philosophical points. So that goofball movie tradition is actually in the right place.

One of the things that’s interesting here is that some of the weirdest incidents in the whole thing are true, or at least based on the surviving sources. Like, there’s a bit where Orestes, Hypatia’s suitor, basically does a big awkward-funny proposal scene in the best rom-com tradition, and she responds by handing him a handkerchief with her menstrual blood on it to highlight the unpleasant reality of carnal desires — this story comes from a later Byzantine source, but still.

The casting in this movie is great. Davus, who starts out the film as Hypatia’s young slave, looks perfect — like, he could be one of those Hellenistic mummy portraits I talked about earlier. Ammonius, the head bad guy monk, is dressed in ragged robes and given a scruffy beard, long hair (originally) and an accent, the better to code him as Al Qaeda.



It’s not the first time this image has been used — Harry Turtledove deployed it effectively, for instance — but the film then immediately throws a change-up, with Ammonius helping impressionable new recruit Davus to go around feeding the hungry and caring for the wretched. He also has a sense of humour which I think is actually pretty plausible for a cult leader.

I think my favourite thing about the film is that Hypatia has the prejudices of her class. Like, when the aforementioned Davus is standing by, listening in on her lecture, two of her students get into a religious quarrel. She quickly shuts them down, and then proclaims that they are all equals, and should never quarrel. Because quarreling is only for slaves and riff-raff. When Davus finally¬†flips the fuck out, you can see how society’s bullshit — specifically including Hypatia’s bullshit — has turned him into the late antique equivalent of a bomb-throwing radical.

There are some historical inaccuracies — I’m not convinced by those legionaries, for instance — and there are some elements that seem to be largely made-up, like the whole idea of Hypatia investigating the idea of a heliocentric cosmos and discovering elliptical orbits, which is more what you might call a metaphor. So, yeah, there are a lot of fluffy dates and a lot extremely dodgy science and philosophy. But it contains things that are good to think, which I approve of.

Criticism of this film, and the discussions surrounding it, have centred mainly on the question of whether it does or doesn’t condemn Christianity. (There is a highly fictionalised burning-the-library-of-Alexandria moment, for instance, and the whole Christians-as-late-antique-Al-Qaeda thing.) I’m not sure this is quite right; the Christians are shown as being pretty divided about how much of a pack of bastards it is necessary to be, a fact that is also reflected in the sources.

I will say this: for a pretty good film, this movie has a pretty crap first ten minutes. There’s a bunch of waffly philosophy and a¬†completely gratuitous butt shot. Like, it couldn’t be more uncalled for. I think they’re trying to point out that Hypatia considers the slaves not to be people at all, so she doesn’t mind being naked around them? But when I saw that, I was like “oh dear, we’re in for it.” I turned out to be wrong.

So anyway, yeah. I thought it was worth it.

Movie Monday: Agora (2009)