Saturday, November 27, 2010


Agora, a film by the Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), revolves around the life of Hypatia, the greatest mathematician, scientist and philosopher of her time, played admirably by Rachel Weisz. In her native 4th century AD Alexandria she was much esteemed for her dignity, intellect and virtue. Many of her students, both pagan and Christian, rose to positions of political power, which meant that she was seen as a woman of great influence, putting her into the crosshairs of the power-hungry. Her death, to some historians, marks the end of the Classical Era, although Hellenistic philosophy did survive her for a few hundred years in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire.
The villain of the piece is Cyril, patriarch/pope of Alexandria, a man described, even by Christians of his day as "a monster, born to destroy the church". He persecuted the Jews and other non-Christians of Alexandria, as well as Christians who disagreed with him, and probably incited the mob of zealots who brutally killed and mutilated Hypatia for her refusal to kneel to his power. Historians disagree over the extent of his responsibility for these events, but the Church's own resistance to his canonisation is telling.
Amenabar certainly has an agenda - firstly to warn against the overthrow of reason by ignorance, and secondly to show that so-called Christians have been, at certain times and places, no better than the Taliban. The second part of the message has infuriated certain reviewers allied to the Church. Agendas tend to distort historical accuracy, but the inaccuracies of the film are not as great as commentators, with their own ideological agenda, have made out. For example, some have deplored Agora for apparently blaming Christians for the destruction of the great Royal Library of Alexandria. There were several libraries in the city, and the film deals with the destruction of the library in the Serapeum temple, not the burning of the great library. The Serapeum was destroyed by either a Christian mob or by Roman soldiers, depending on which ancient account one reads. We will probably never know who was responsible for the tragic loss of the more famous library.
I saw the film with my librarian sister, which was quite appropriate.

Hypatia as imagined by Raphael


Anonymous said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. The film was beautifully shot and a bit uneven. Amenabar did distort some history in service to his art, but that's what artists do. I go to the movies for entertainment, not history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

jeronimus said...

Thanks for clarifying the historical events. I loved Weisz's performance too. I agree with you that politics, rather than religion, was the main cause of Hypatia's death, but this begs the question: why was a so-called Christian patriarch (Cyril) so involved in such a murderous form of political intrigue.

Anonymous said...

I'm in no way exonerating Cyril. I've read enough to know he was a nasty piece of work. Where ever there is power (church, state, media, corporations), men will seek it for their own personal reasons; rarely having anything to do with the public good. Of course, there are exceptions and some will even lie to themselves about their motivations.

There's no direct evidence that Cyril ordered the hit on Hypatia, but he certainly set the tone. His hypocritical rants sound like a lot of venom-filled modern religionists (of all types.) I think that was Amenabar's point.

jeronimus said...

Hi faith. My question about Cyril was not so much directed at you - just me thinking aloud. I didn't suspect you of being a Cyril fan. In fact your review of the film, and account of the events, is very balanced.
A lot of sites are laddling hate on the film for historical inaccuracy. Shakespeare's historical plays' are wonderful, but I doubt even he would have considered them to be factual historical documentaries, nor wanted them to be. Art tells truth with a slant that reveals something hitherto unseen.
And (again, not directed at you) I feel Amenabar deserves credit for shedding light on a very dark moment in the history of the Church, and perhaps giving pause to those who project the Church's sometimes violent past onto other religions. Islam being flavour of the month at the moment.
Figures like Cyril are not really religious, in the true sense of the word (religare means "to join back together"), but hold onto power through dividing and conquering people. Mubarak is a modern day example from the same country.