Saturday, August 21, 2010


Though giant scorpions don’t emerge from the dunes and no one gets lost under a pyramid or hacked to pieces by an army of skeletons gone berserk, Agora is an entertaining film all the same, and thought-provoking too. It gives us a better look at the ancient city of Alexandria than we’d ever be likely to get otherwise, via the lavish sets and CGI add-ons of Spanish director Alejandro Amerábar. That in itself is worth the price of a matinee.

In fact, Agora might almost be taken as an antidote to the Mummy series, though it shares a star—Rachel Weitz. Instead of primitive one-liners from Brendan Fraser we get courtly discussions of logic and astronomy. Instead of battles in the desert we get zealous urban mobs seizing government buildings and brutally disposing of their foes. All the while discussions continue to take place at the administrative level between the Roman government, the Christian community (which has recently emerged from the shadows to become a “legal” creed, and now seeks to expand its influence politically), the temple priests of the local pagan cults, and the leaders of the Jewish community. Many of the aristocrats in government have already become Christians—some through expediency, others through genuine conversion. It’s a heady situation, fraught with complexity, and there are plenty of gray areas where diplomacy gives way to the powerful yet brittle forces of moral dogmatism, realpolitic, and popular fervor.

The philosopher Hypasia (played by Weisz) offers us yet another slice of the ancient world-view. She’s the head of the local school and library, following in the footsteps of her father; in that capacity she advocates exploring the mysteries of the universe via disinterested observation, measurement, and reasoning. The political import of her teaching ranges from nil to positively subversive, depending on the point of view opposing it, and the fact that she’s a woman doesn’t help much either. What does stand in her favor in that she’s very beautiful, and three of her former students who now occupy prominent positions in society are in love with her, including the prefect, the regional bishop, and her former slave, who has now joined the Christian militia.

There’s an element of stereotype in the set-up, to be sure, but it’s interesting to note that most, if not all, of the major characters Amerábar has woven into the plot are genuine historical figures. There has long been dispute in historical circles as to whether the leader of the Alexandrian Christians, Cyril, was actually a dastardly figure or a decent, sober-minded Christian. Amerábar puts him somewhere in the middle, charismatic and confident in his growing authority, but ultimately intolerant of anyone who questioned the primacy of men over women, and of Christ over the cosmos.

I won’t tell you how the film ends, though I will say that it isn’t pretty. The controversy at the center of the film is still far from over. Agora hasn’t generated a fraction of the controversy aroused by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (How could it? It’s showing in only 13 theaters in the U.S. today.) But Christian groups have taken offense, arguing that it’s a historically inaccurate portrayal designed to put Christianity in the worst possible light.

For example, Father Robert Barron, on his “Word on Fire” blog, finds the film to be a further chapter in a tradition of anti-Christian calumny dating back to Gibbon. He admits that Hypatia “was indeed a philosopher” and “was indeed killed by a mob in 415.” The rest, he argues is bunk:

Alejandro Amenabar’s new film stands firmly in the Gibbon/Sagan tradition, presenting Hypatia as a saint of secular rationalism who desperately gathers scrolls from the library before it is invaded by hysterical Christians and who goes nobly to her death, defending reason and science against the avatars of religious superstition.

Yet Barron’s own grasp of the facts is tenuous at best. He asserts that the library of Alexandria “was burnt to the ground, not by Christian mobs in the fifth century, but by Julius Caesar’s troops, some forty years before Jesus was born.”

However, Theodore Vrettos, in his recent book Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, tells a different story:

The Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from Asia Minor had now reached the Egyptian coast, but because of contrary winds, they were unable to proceed toward Alexandria. At anchor in the harbor off Lochias, the Egyptian fleet posed an additional problem for the Roman ships. However, in a surprise attack, Caesar's soldiers set fire to the Egyptian ships, and the flames, spreading rapidly in the driving wind, consumed most of the dockyard, many structures near the palace, and also several thousand books that were housed in one of the buildings. From this incident, historians mistakenly assumed that the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed, but the Library was nowhere near the docks...The most immediate damage occurred in the area around the docks, in shipyards, arsenals, and warehouses in which grain and books were stored. Some 40,000 book scrolls were destroyed in the fire. Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria's export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world.

The record makes it pretty clear that there were several impressive libraries in Alexandria during the Hellenistic period, and we don’t really know exactly when they were destroyed, or by whom. There is no evidence that they were (or weren't) destroyed by Christians. Barron is willing to admit that a temple to the god Serapis was sacked by Christians in Hypatia’s time, and that there were scrolls in the temple at the time. We see this event take place in the film. Where’s the problem?

The problem lies in Barron’s simple-minded characterization of the film, which he attempts to conflate with crude myths from other sources. Perhaps he's been blinded by defensiveness and paranoia. He depicts Agora as a “battle between sweet reason and vicious religious superstition,” and finds the rendering of Hypatia as a champion of reason against superstition ridiculous. He has entirely overlooked the many nuances Amerábar highlights within both the Christian and pagan communities, and the interesting counter-currents between slave and free, male and female, pagan and Christian and Jew, that give the film its flavor and keep us intrigued at times when the dialog becomes stodgy or the mob fanaticism routine. For example, when the prefect Orestes asks Hypatia, “What does it matter if the earth moves or not?” he is asking a valid question, and many in the audience will probably be thinking (as I was): He’s right. It really makes no difference.

We’ve seen countless films depicting Roman legionnaires as insensitive brutes; is it that difficult to believe that in ancient times a few avowed Christians were no less intent on gaining power for their faction by any means available? That isn’t the main point of the film, but it's historically unassailable, and Amerábar goes out of his way to differentiate the thuggish Christian "enforcers," a sort of brown-shirt vigilante group, from the masses of common folk hanging around in the agora out of curiosity or desperation.

The most interesting point Barron makes, it seems to me, is that the historical Hypatia was best known in ancient times, not as an astronomer, but as a neo-Platonist philosopher. He points out that there were Christians in Hypatia’s classes and eminent Christians among her circle of friends, and goes on to observe that Christian theologians including Augustine, Ambrose, and Origen were neo-Platonists. What he seems to be suggesting is that Hypatia and the sharpest, best, most-well-educated of the Christians had a lot in common. But that's the same point Amerábar is making. Hypatia isn't charcaterized as “the noble champion of reason over and against mouth-breathing Christian primitives.” She isn’t specifically against Christianity or anything else. The main intellectual point advanced by the film—and it’s a simple one—is that people are mostly the same and ought to treat one another decently.

I don’t think Jesus Christ would have had much of a problem with that … though Plato might not have accepted it. And the leaders of the Alexandrian Christian community would certainly have had none of it.

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