I love it when they re-create the Roman era, complete with the
togas, the chariots, the Greek-influenced architecture.
Of course, many of the now-familiar Roman soldier outfits have
been used to shoot films about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there are plenty of other locales and eras to consider, as well:
in the 4th century.
“Agora” is Spanish Director Alejandro Amenabar’s
English-language version of the life and times of Hypatia, the legendary
philosophy teacher of the neo-Platonic, Ptolemaic (I’ve just been
waiting to use that word) school, who also was very interested in
astronomy and cosmology: specifically,
whether the sun revolved around the earth, or vice versa, and what shape
of orbit would explain the change of seasons.
Of course, the answer is “elliptical,” but it is a matter of
historical dispute whether Hypatia herself “discovered” this, or
relied on the work of others, or simply helped lay the foundation for
subsequent European thinkers (like
and Galileo). Then there is the historical debate about whether she was
the last librarian at the ancient Great Library in
, which was destroyed somewhere around her time period (Carl Sagan
reportedly posits this in his works, but without apparent attestation).
But this movie isn’t really about science, anyway, it’s about
prejudice. Rachel Wiesz
(who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “The Constant Gardener”)
plays a dignified and noble Hypatia, a scholarly and reflective woman
trying to operate in a man’s world.
She is a teacher of men, and she holds on to her own sexuality
like some kind of intellectual Vestal Virgin, famously answering a
potential suitor’s inquiry with a fresh sample of menstrual blood (a
strident confrontation about the ownership of sexuality not lost on the
cultural observers of any era). She
is done in by the rise of strident Christianity, whose fiery,
inquisition-like orators are portrayed as primal riot-inciters:
first persecuting the Jews, then burning down the Great Library
and pulling down the statues to the old Greek and Roman gods as
“pagan,” then persecuting any who haven’t publicly converted, then
going after Hypatia herself, who’s readily resented in this boiling
cauldron of prissy patriarchy: she’s
a strong-willed woman, she’s an independent intellectual, and she
espouses neither a particular
man nor a particular religion, which must mean she’s a witch.
Of course, the Christians here couldn’t be portrayed in a worse
light: angry, violent,
unreasonable, uncompromising, and insatiably bloodthirsty.
Ah, would that it were not so.
But, alas, there probably is some historical veracity to this
horrifying portrayal of the Age Of Unreason; reportedly the “real”
Hypatia was dragged through the streets naked, then her limbs severed
and burned. In this film,
there’s only a mercy-suffocation prior to a corpse-stoning.
But the indictment against those who are overly zealous for the
Christian faith couldn’t be clearer, and, by inference, the fervently
devout of any religion.
Yes, sincere believers of any age are easy to demonize, partly
because we so readily harden zeal into intransigence, and eager
conviction corrodes into seething intolerance.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor,
Grace Presbyterian Church,