Agora: Hypatia’s life and times not done justice by film plot and structure

Alejandro Amenabar, “Agora” (2010)

This Spanish production presents a fictional account of the final years and death of the Greek female scientist / mathematician / philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. In Western literature, the death of Hypatia has often symbolised the decline of classical Greco-Roman civilisation and the values associated with it (in particular, free scientific inquiry and questioning / re-examining one’s beliefs and authority) and the rise of early Christianity and the values associated with that (unquestioning belief and faith in authority, literalism, bigotry and intolerance, the repression of women) and the film picks up this representation to decry religious authoritarianism and the damage it can cause. It’s an ambitious film with beautiful sets and actors with talent swanning around in gorgeous costumes but it’s let down by a confused and broken story that tries so hard to be relevant to modern audiences that clarity and emotional drama got left out.

As Hypatia, reputedly a woman of great beauty as well as of intellect, Rachel Weisz is not a bad choice: she does a good job with what she’s given though I think the film-makers could have given her more meaty work. The real-life Hypatia exercised some political and intellectual influence and leadership in Alexandria, and in this aspect of her life, Weisz isn’t quite so convincing as she is Hypatia the scientist: at one point in the film, she suggests that her persecutor, Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), should be arrested but on what basis, she doesn’t say and doesn’t back up her statement with argument or emotional force. As slave-owner to Davus (Max Minghella), Weisz’s Hypatia should be more ambiguous than she is: true, she’s gentle and treats him well when she feels he deserves it or gets hurt but when the plot calls for her to treat Davus as the slave he is, she isn’t severe or commanding enough. Spending much of her screen time trying to reconcile her Neoplatonic beliefs about an earth-centred universe where the planets move in perfect circles with actual astronomical phenomena that suggest something else – and finding the solution to her questions in a heliocentric view of the universe in which the earth and its sister planets revolve around the sun elliptically – Weisz’s Hypatia strikes me as a refined and perhaps detached aristocrat who seems at a loss as to how to deal with the changing social and political realities that eventually claim her life. She offers no opinions on the various religious ideologies vying for the Alexandrian citizens’ hearts and minds and can only say that she believes in philosophy (but what kind, the film doesn’t say).

The film’s plot is mired in a fictitious love triangle of Hypatia, her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who later becomes prefect of Alexandria, and the slave Davus: since Hypatia spurns both Orestes and Davus as lovers, and these two never actually meet, why do the film-makers even bother setting the three of them up in the first place? Davus, fed up with Hypatia’s condescension towards him (he is her slave after all, what does he expect?), converts to Christianity and leaves her service to join Cyril’s congregation but finds himself torn between his loyalty to Christianity and his passion for Hypatia. Orestes goes from being an ardent, red-blooded pagan wannabe suitor to an ineffectual, morally conflicted Christian politician who admits to feeling lost without Hypatia’s advice. That’s about all the character development the film offers and it’s wasted on two support roles. Of the characters of Hypatia and her enemy the Bishop of Alexandria, and their motives for being and acting the way they do, there is no development: Hypatia is just a self-interested geek who sometimes dabbles in politics and the Bishop is a sinister cult leader who manipulates his followers all the way through the film. Wearing black turban-like cloths around their heads, these followers are made to resemble current enemy flavour of the day the Afghan Taliban in case we don’t quite get the message.

The film’s earnestness and desire to relate Hypatia’s times to us modern ignoramuses is emphasised by the camera’s occasional pulling back from the action, right, ri-i-ight back to take in a Google Earth satellite view of Alexandria (lovingly done at times, as if to say, wow, isn’t this reconstruction of an ancient city beautiful?) and of northern Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region. We get the picture: religious bigotry and violence existed 1,600 years ago as it does now in the same parts of the world. The implication is a bit despairing, as if the conflict has always been an ongoing thing and only the actors change; first it was Christians versus pagans then Jews, now it’s Jews versus Muslims. The film breaks in half with two time periods in Hypatia’s life, one in which the Christian mobs pick on the pagans and sack their temple and library, the other taking place several years later with pagan worship outlawed so the Christians have to sledge the Jews instead. In the intervening period, Orestes has converted to Christianity and his character mellowed while Cyril has been promoted to Bishop of Alexandria. If viewers don’t get lost trying to figure the connection between these two arbitrarily chosen periods and why Orestes has become Christian and how his personality can have changed so much while Cyril stays much the same but with better pay and the lifestyle to match, I’ll be surprised. 

The film might have done better if Davus had been made the main character and observed his mistress’s downfall and death; he might also come to realise he has been brainwashed by Bishop Cyril and try to break away from him. Usually the purpose of having a fictional character in a movie about real-life people and events is to provide a focal person for the audience to follow the action and maybe comment on it. Through Davus’s eyes we might have seen Hypatia as a different woman, one more authoritative perhaps, more arrogant even, arrogant enough to think her status as an intellectual, political advisor and local celebrity warmly regarded by both Christians and non-Christians alike would protect her from a lynch mob. We might have seen the attraction of Christianity for someone like Davus and the danger of religious manipulation and extremist behaviour, and understand his inner conflict better.

As it is, the film is a good-looking introduction to a historical figure most people know little about in a period of ancient Roman history not previously covered by most films that cover the Roman Empire. I find it a shame that “Agora” is let down by an unnecessary plot vehicle, a protagonist and antagonist whose characters are rather flat compared to some others and a structure that just about derails the whole project by breaking in half. The pity is that Hypatia’s life and times contain enough real human drama and conflict about the forced retreat of science and reason before political expediency and religious extremism; the film could have made the point that Hypatia was as much a victim of Roman imperial policy and attitudes and of inaction on the part of local rulers in Roman Egypt as she was of the Christian lynch mob.

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