Sunday, December 19, 2010
Agora’s Two Acts
I finally got around to watching Agora. My friend Lionel Spiegel got a hold of a copy and so, armed with popcorn, we got ready to wage merciless Mystery Science Theater 3000 against the movie's Whig biases. Agora tells the story of the female pagan philosopher Hypatia, who was murdered by a Christian mob, and the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria at the hands of Christians. I therefore expected a highly simplistic movie with virtuous enlightened pagans living in paradise and vicious intolerant Christians ruining everything and bringing about the "Dark Ages." I must admit, though, that the movie turned out much better than the trailers had led me to expect, managing for the most part to be fair to the actual historical events. This is until the second act of the film.
First off, full credit has to be given to the set designers for their breathtaking reconstruction of late fourth century Alexandria. This has to go down as one of the best reconstructions of a pre-modern city in the history of film. I was not even so bothered by the lack of mud; this still being the Roman Empire. Next, you have Ashraf Barhom's film stealing supporting role as the Christian monk Ammonius. If I had seen this movie earlier I would have tried showing at least parts of it to my 111 class as part of our unit on Christianity. Barhom's portrayal of Ammonius fits precisely into the Rodney Stark model of religious outreach that I presented. Ammonius preaches on the streets of Alexandria to crowds, picks debates with pagans and performs "miracles" (in his case walking through fire), but what makes Ammonius effective is his charismatic charm, which allows him to form relationships with individual people. This allows him to attract, not massive crowds in single dramatic speeches, but to slowly win over individuals, in the case of the movie Hypatia's slave Davus. This is essentially how I imagine Paul preaching and winning converts. Whatever you might think of his actions, this is a man that you like and can understand why others might change their lives around to convert to his religion and follow him.
Anchored by Barhom's Ammonius, the film actually does manage to offer a nuanced portrayal of Christianity, where, even if Christians are still the villains of the story in the end, there is a recognition that the world of late antiquity was not completely black and white. If the Christian mob ends up sacking the Library, it is only after the pagans' started the fight. In keeping with the narrative of the slow, quite non-dramatic spread of Christianity, the pagans find the tables turned on them by the unexpected size of the Christian counter-attack, leading one of the pagan leaders to exclaim: "who knew that there were so many Christians?"
If the movie had ended after the first act, I would have been on my feet acclaiming this movie as one of the greatest historical films ever, one that could allow Christians to burn down the Great Library of Alexandria and maintain some sense of nuance. The second act, though, with Hypatia's conflict with Bishop Cyril, leading to her death, manages to fall into all the Whig anachronisms I feared. First, there is Hypatia's grappling with the problem of the elaborate system epicycles, circles on top of the planet's circular orbits, in the Ptolemaic geocentric solar system. Even this is well done and worthwhile as a portrayal of the necessary thought processes on the road to heliocentrism. The fact that Hypatia is made out to be a heliocentrist is also not a problem, even if we have no evidence that she was, as the belief was found among the ancient Greeks. The film though decides to go one better and has Hypatia preempt Kepler in the theory of elliptical orbits, necessary in order to avoid the problem of epicycles. If you are going to go that far then why not have her ask why planets move in elliptical orbits and come up with Newtonian mechanics or even Einstein's Theory of Relativity? Then there is the crude misogyny of Bishop Cyril as he quotes Paul's Epistle to Timothy about the role of women. (Anyone who sits in smug judgment of pre-modern patriarchy without considering the inevitable logic of a highly militarized society, in which women do not serve in the military, has failed to engage in due historical thinking unfit to comment on historical events.) In keeping with this theme of misogyny, Cyril levels the ultimate patriarchal accusation of witchcraft against Hypatia even though the charge of witchcraft did not come into common use until the fifteenth century. (Sorcery is a completely different issue.)
No, we have no reason to assume that Hypatia could have jump started the Scientific Revolution in late antiquity Alexandria only to be stopped by Church misogyny. The story of Hypatia and the downfall of Greco-Roman civilization is tragic enough without that. By all means, go watch this movie for the first act; if you feel so inclined, try to stomach the second.