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Comment 23

What Madness Is This? A Review of the Film “AGORA”
July 10, 2010

Many of the early scenes of “AGORA” take place in the open-air forum of the city of Alexandria in Egypt, where hawkers for the old pagan gods like Serapis compete for space and attention with hawkers of the newly ascendant Christianity. It is the year 391, and the Christian emperor in Rome is about to outlaw all religions but that of Jesus Christ.


The old gods are on the way out—but not without a fight. When the high priest of Serapis hears that Christians have publicly insulted his god, he leads a mob of his followers into the agora to attack the Christians. But the tables are soon turned, for the Christians, rallying to their banner, are more numerous than anticipated, and the melee between the rival groups turns into a bloodbath.


At its outset, a Christian priest, upon seeing the pagan mob charging into the agora brandishing cudgels and short swords intent on avenging the insult to their god, cries: “What madness is this?” Considering that the Christians are also assaulting and slaughtering the Jews in Alexandria (and vice-versa) at this time, and were not beyond mob violence themselves between theological factions that were at each others’ throats over the nature of the figure of Jesus, such a question says it all. For the world of the fast-decaying Roman Empire (the city of Rome itself was to be sacked by marauding Goths in less than two decades) was embarking on a period of almost 1500 years that was rife with religious wars, as competing gods and beliefs about gods turned Christian against Christian, Church against heretic, Christian against Jew, Christian against the Muslim infidel, Muslim against the Christian infidel, pope against pope, Catholic against Protestant, scripture against learning, in an orgy of war, pogrom, persecution, bloodletting, burning, superstition and ignorance. Madness indeed.


Alexandria in the 4th century was a diverse cauldron of people and ideas. At its intellectual center stood the famed Library, with the greatest collection of ancient culture and learning contained in its books and scrolls. With it were associated various philosophical schools. One of its renowned teachers was Hypatia, who taught Neoplatonist philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. But the Library’s long tradition under pagan auspices was beginning to chafe the growing Christian movement, which regarded all things of pagan origin with suspicion and hostility.


That hostility led to a Christian attack on the Library itself, supposedly with the approval of the Emperor, who was reacting to the civil strife which the pagan-Christian rivalry was generating in the city. In the film, Hypatia and her students attempt to save some of the scrolls, but the rampaging mob cannot be stopped, and the precious contents of the Library are stripped from their shelves and burned in the public square.


The various scenes of turmoil in the first half of “AGORA” are immensely powerful; the cinematography is stunning. When statues of the pagan gods are pulled down with resounding crashes and disintegration, the ancient world is collapsing to pieces before us. Alejandro Amenabar’s directorial skills are outstanding. A stroke of genius occurs as the Christians are ransacking the Library, carting out its scrolls to be heaped upon the fires. We are given a high bird’s eye view directly down upon the scurrying figures, little larger than ants, the motion is speeded up, and the scene resembles nothing so much as an ant hill (the camera has actually glanced past an ant hill a few minutes earlier, so that the later image is certain to be triggered). The book burners and the motivations behind them become as mindless as that warren of mindless insects.


Amid the turmoil in the city around her, Hypatia, her teaching and research, present an island of calm and sanity. We know very little about the specifics of Hypatia’s scientific activities, though she seems to have had an intense interest in astronomy, which would primarily have meant the issue of whether the earth was at the center of the universe, unmoving, as in the current Ptolemaic system, or instead revolved around the sun, as the Greek astronomer Aristarchus maintained. Discussion of this conundrum is a repeated motif through the film. During debates among the pupils, the objection is made that if the earth is moving, then something dropped from a tall building should strike the ground further off from it as the earth moves away from its previous position. Hypatia, who seems to lean toward a sun-centered universe, acknowledges the problem, but declares that there may be an answer, just that we don’t yet know what it is. Nothing could better illustrate the spirit of scientific inquiry and openness to investigation, something the ancients as a whole too rarely had and which was in danger of evaporating entirely under the new Christian hegemony. She goes so far as to experiment by having a sack dropped from the top mast of a moving ship. Despite the ship’s forward motion, the sack drops perfectly vertically, which demonstrates to her that the same sort of thing could be happening on a moving earth.


Because the sun appears to be closer to the earth during winter than in summer, this would seem to foil the idea that the earth moves around the sun, for the circle was regarded as the perfect form of motion, and in a God-created universe surely he would introduce such a perfection. Too much of ancient cosmology and intellectual activity in general was governed by such perceived principles, rather than observation and experiment being allowed to have their say. When Hypatia comes to realize that she along with so many others have been guilty of such a fallacy and she begins to think and experiment along the lines of ellipses and parabolas, we know we are witnessing a representation of those moments of inspiration and progress which have carried forward the long, painful process of humanity’s attainment of enlightenment.


Such scenes bring home to us that for the vast span of time before our modern scientific era, people lacked even the most basic understanding of the world they lived in. In such an absence, ignorance and superstition, indeed sheer error on which so much was brought to depend, had free rein to rule the day, with perilous consequence. And those moments of inspiration and progress could be fragile, like seeds on uncertain ground, churned up by those too frequent environments of madness—as we are to see.


Incidentally, some reviewers have perversely characterized this film as a love story of sorts, on the basis of two characters, a pupil and a slave of Hypatia, falling in love with her (neither love is requited). But this is a film of ideas, an account of the clash of religious and philosophical worlds at a key moment in western history, and it succeeds superbly. Despite falling into two natural halves, focusing on two periods in Hypatia’s life, it is nevertheless a seamless telling of a momentous story, with no significant imperfections in that telling. Amenabar, in an interview at Cannes, revealed that the initial inspiration related to the astronomical plot, the process of discovery that the earth was not the center of the universe; this interest led him to Hypatia and the story of her work and fate. The “AGORA” of the title is meant to represent the earth as our common “marketplace” where all people must live and act together—indeed, the middle “O” appears on the screen as the planet itself, a brilliant stroke.


Hypatia’s nemesis is Cyril, Christian patriarch of Alexandria. Reflecting the misogynist climate of so much of early Christianity, the Church’s hierarchy is suspicious and hostile toward a woman like Hypatia, who speaks her mind, declines to convert to the faith and submit to baptism, and has considerable influence upon the city’s intellectual life. One of Hypatia’s students in 391, Orestes, now a Christian, becomes in subsequent years the Prefect of the City, responsible for maintaining law and order. The Library had been sacked, but the city’s life went on and with it a degree of study and intellectual activity, with Hypatia continuing to be one of its focal points. Orestes, his early proffer of love to her having been declined, has nevertheless remained her sympathetic supporter and protector, and as such has come into conflict with Cyril. In a stage-managed public meeting, Cyril reads from the letter 1 Timothy (allegedly by Paul but actually, as modern scholarship shows, forged later in his name) a passage critical of the unrestricted behavior of women, which needs to be suppressed. Making a pointed reference to Hypatia and intimating witchcraft on her part, he demands that all present kneel before the undeniable word of God in scripture (and by implication, himself and his own authority). Orestes alone cannot do so, since it would mean endorsing Cyril’s condemnation—indeed, damnation—of Hypatia, and he stalks out. This powerful scene demonstrates the clear incompatibility and intractability of dogma- and scripture-based claims to authority as against all that is tolerant, rational and dedicated to learning and progress.


From that moment, Hypatia is a marked woman. In a scene between herself and Orestes, with another former pupil who is now the Christian bishop of neighboring Cyrene, Hypatia once again is urged to convert and be baptized, in essence to kneel herself before Cyril. She cannot compromise her principles, however, pointing out that while the bishop is not allowed to question the things he believes in, “I must.” That conflict, and the triumph of the former party involved in it, condemned the Western world to a largely stagnant cesspool of ignorance and misery for the next thousand years. When Orestes laments that if she resists, Cyril is in danger of winning, she replies in a haunted whisper, “Cyril has already won.” For indeed he had, and the world’s future was determined by that profoundly sad and tragic development. It is a sadness one comes away from the film unavoidably feeling.


This is brought home by the movie’s final scenes, an engineered juxtaposition by the writer and director (both Amenabar himself) but completely valid nonetheless. We don’t know if Hypatia in fact experimented with calculating the possible movements of the earth; in the film she uses sticks and cord in a sandbox to demonstrate how the planet could circle the sun in an elliptical fashion, thereby solving the problem of seeming to be closer to it in winter than in summer. This scene with her personal assistant, in which she draws on her own ability to think experimentally and logically, gives us another of those moments in which we thrill to the capacity of the unbridled human mind to discover, to learn, to achieve enlightenment, to set aside received wisdom—especially ‘revealed’ wisdom—in order to enter uncharted territory and raise human knowledge and maturity to a height which gods (including Jesus the Son of God on earth) have never granted.


And yet, it was not to be. Not for a very long time. If Hypatia did unlock the secret of the earth’s orbit, that insight died with her, for soon after—in the film’s next day—she is waylaid by a band of Christian zealots inspired by Cyril’s bigotry and brought into a church for execution. As often happens in historical dramas, a certain liberty is taken with known or presumed historical facts. According to later accounts, Hypatia (in the year 415) was pulled from her chariot by a group of Christian monks in the streets of Alexandria, stripped naked and dragged to a church where she was flayed and burned, possibly while still alive. Perhaps with audience sensibilities in mind, Amenabar has her dispatched by Davus, her former slave turned Christian, a death by suffocation while the rest of the Christian posse has gone outside to collect rocks to stone her. This is portrayed as an act of mercy by the former slave who had harbored his own private love for his mistress. This is another powerfully moving scene. Hypatia has been left standing without clothes before the altar by her abductors, alone in the company of the former slave. Though discreetly shot from a side and somewhat distant camera angle, the nakedness of this delicate woman conveys all the vulnerability of what Hypatia stood for in the face of brutal dogma and repression, while Davus looms behind her, covering her mouth and nose with his hand until the light dims from her eyes.


An on-screen text as the film ends reminds us that it was to be 1200 years hence before the astronomer Kepler discovered the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun. (It also reminds us that Cyril became Saint Cyril and was honored as a Father of the Church.) We might further remind ourselves that around the same time as Kepler, Galileo was declared a heretic, narrowly escaping burning, to be placed under lifelong house arrest for advocating a geo-centered universe based on observations through his new telescope. For this was in unthinkable contradiction to Old Testament scripture which clearly indicated that the sun revolved around the earth, else why would the word of God describe its temporary cessation in that cycle as Joshua was attacking the walls of Jericho?


We might further remind ourselves of the pitiable state of medieval society, its fear of demons fuelled by the accounts of Jesus’ healing expulsion of evil spirits in the Gospels, its unhygienic practices creating an environment of disease and death and high infant mortality (after all, had not St. Jerome declared that one need not wash again after having been “washed in the blood of the Lamb”?), its public burnings of those who dared believe or act in contravention of Church tradition and scripture, its abysmal knowledge of the workings of the world and of the human body, since scientific investigation was roundly discouraged and dissection of corpses forbidden. The litany is endless, and as an ultimate reminder we must not lose sight of the fact that remnants of the same condition, even three centuries after the Enlightenment, persist to a great extent today, especially in the Americas. There are still Cyrils aplenty who hold up this ancient book of writings as the last and sole word even for the 21st century, who seek to impose its primitive ideas, prejudices and restrictions, its ignorances and superstitions, on society as a whole, who cheerfully condemn science and evolution, falsify history and gut school textbooks, who preach in their churches the laudability of shunning rationality and condemning non-believers, of embracing an absurd faith whose principles go back into a primitive time we have long abandoned in so many other aspects of modern life and thought.


Where did we go wrong? Why has evolution thrown up so many more Cyrils than Hypatias? Why has ignorance seemed to want to root out enlightenment, to discredit it, stamp it into the ground? Perhaps it has been our fear of the unknown which has made us prey to the purveyors of certainty and fantasy, antagonistic toward those who would question and undermine the imagined security they offer. Could this have been a survival mechanism generated by evolution? If so, perhaps it once again illustrates that functioning ends will often be achieved through imperfect means. Simply because there was no mind at the helm, no Creator to design, intelligently or otherwise, the development of self-aware life, we have been at the mercy of imperfection, resistance, failures along the way. Mutation is a haphazard thing and may not always guarantee the best results.


On the other hand, it may be that the species on this planet is doomed to ultimate failure, to self-destruction. The universe may not care whether a counter-productive superstition like belief in gods who require unquestioning faith and the ruthless suppression of other gods and faiths has made this particular planetary experiment a destined failure. After all, there seem to be plenty of other planets for the universe to work on. When the gods of this world’s major religions, thrown up at a moment in sidereal time to make such unreasonable and counter-productive demands, lie in a dustbin so buried even the galaxy has forgotten it, a more successful experiment elsewhere may have reached its happy culmination. Perhaps on that world, the local Hypatia will survive and be lauded, and no Alejandro Amenabar will be compelled to craft a masterful film to lament her passing.


Earl Doherty