Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Agora – Alejandro Amenabar – Hypatia of Alexandria

I caught an interesting flick on cable the other night.  It is called Agora (2009), (the Greek name for the Latin word Forum).  Set around the year 391 A.D., it is about the last days of paganism in the historic city of Alexandria in Egypt.

While it plays tricks with history, it is a beautifully filmed cinematic wonder, but not quite in the league with past big Hollywood blockbusters like Ben Hur and Cleopatra.  But close.

The grittiness of the sand and sun in Egypt is everywhere in this film.  And even if the Agora or Forum with its public buildings, markets and temples are probably made of paper mache, the sense of recreating these buildings is itself a refreshing attempt to reenact ancient history.   One has to wonder how much of this movie set is real and temporarily built and how much is computer aided design illusion.

While the set satisfies me as to accuracy, the history depicted in the film is questionable.

Because real history back then comes down to us in sparse pieces, historians have speculated and added to those sparse fragments to paint a picture that can be interpreted in many ways and at different times in history.

The film is directed by Chilean/Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, whose Oscar winning best foreign language film in 2005, The Sea Inside, was based on real life quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro’s almost thirty year struggle to have an assisted suicide.  That movie starred Javier Bardem in what I believe was his breakout role that got him his next big exposure in the American flick No Country for Old Men (2007).

Director Amenabar is openly gay in Spain.  I do not know if he is an atheist.

Much of the criticism of this movie Agora in the catholic blogosphere is shaped as “anti-Catholic”, presumably anti-Roman Catholic which is the predominate Christian sect in western Europe.  If anything it is framed as anti-Christian.  The pagans are now a minority in Alexandria in 391 and the Emperor in Constantinople outlaws all religions except Christianity.  You know what hits the fan.

There are of course riots.  Pagans against Christians and Christians against Jews in this final push for power of Constantine’s church here on this earth.

There is a certain anti-clericalism in movies made in Europe.  I am reminded of the German movie about the first female pope, Pope Joan (2009), or so the legend goes.

Agora is bent to show the final victory over the victory of the Christian faith over the disillusioned declining pagan faiths of the old Roman and Egyptian empires. 

Rather than do some scholarly history about what is what in 391 Alexandria, a lot of myth is repeated and no doubt a great deal of what the public might perceive in the historic female philosopher/mathematician Hypatia comes from modern sources such as the Atheist American Astronomer Carl Sagan in his TV series Cosmos in 1980. 
Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.(Sagan, p. 366)
Is this movie anti-catholic?  Not really.  Is it anti-Christian?  No.  Is it perhaps a bit anti-Byzantine Orthodox or anti-Coptic?  But you must remember that many sides in the day had to have their own thugs to protect their own interests in the day.

Even the last segments of a Roman Army cannot control the mobs that control and swarm over Alexandria

Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz) is out of her league in terms of probable history.  Hypatia was likely over sixty when she was killed by a mob.  Hardly the likely love interest of a young Christian slave boy.  

That the mob happened to be Christian and she was a well known member of the pagan Alexandria aristocracy, so she was well known enough to incite anger, jealousy or political rage. 

Besides the age thing, the movie has Hypatia researching gravity and the sun as the center of the solar system.  Possible but not probable. 

There is of course one scene where the supposedly surviving annex of the previously destroyed Library of Alexandria is sacked by a Christian mob.  This is what I see most mentioned in blogs.  The Catholics don’t like that scene in particular, though in reality a small defunct library had once probably existed in the Serapeum, a temple complex devoted to the Ptolemaic Greek/Egyptian fusion/invented god Serapis – and destroyed after the Byzantine Emperor’s anti-pagan edict.

I may be just another dumbed down American who was taught no real history in twelve years of catholic education before George Washington and his cherry tree or Ben Franklin and his kite.

Never heard of Hypatia before a few days when I saw the flick Agora on cable TV.  I am a Rachel Weisz fan.  Loved her in that Kabbalah inspired movie The Fountain (2006).

The Movies from day one have fractured history in order to get the story into an allotted time along with standard movie story telling technique.

I like revisionist history.  The first time I hear about history stuff is usually in the movies such as the Inquisition lasting in Spain until the nineteeth century – Goya’s Ghosts (2006).  Etc.

It stimulates me to research the moments mentioned and get a better handle on the reality of the fantasy depicted in the movie.

Movies can be powerful things.  Powerful tools of entertainment and also potentially powerful tools of propaganda if you don’t like the way your ancestors are depicted by a director passionate about his craft.  That craft is telling a story.

I see that Agora was virtually shut out of American theatres with maybe a dozen screens going through a season.  Have to wonder if the Catholic League got through again and got their way again in suppressing ideas more so than cinematography in this very interesting piece of visual “cultural” history?

Looking at the bottom line and the lack of interest of the Vatican and or the Catholic League in this film, I would guess that Amenabar was not looking for or could not find an American distributor for this small gem of film in 2009.