Monday, September 13, 2010

Agora (or get ready for the Epic-ly long blog)

Shaun de Waal is my favourite film critic. His acerbic wit and insightful commentary is clearly well-informed by incredible knowledge of many different film genres and movements, as well as the history that they portray. As a young film enthusiast, I eagerly awaited Barry Ronge's "Screenplay" and his film critiques in the Sunday Times, and then when my tastes became a little more sophisticated, I stopped reading them as I found them inaccurate, maudlin or plain silly. I have seen him endorse films over-enthusiastically that were really only a little above average, and decided that he is clearly one of those critics who is being paid by someone to write what they want people to read about films.

Not so Shaun de Waal. I have come to trust that when he says a film is good (which is very seldom) I know I have to go to see it. His criticisms are also educative because they often include extra tit-bits of history not included in historical films, or damning criticism regarding the frequent homophobic portrayals of gay people or gay issues. At the core of his critiques, however, there is always a nuanced interaction with the film itself.

Which is why I was a little disappointed by his critique of "Agora". "Agora" is an historical film set during the fall of the Roman empire when Christianity had been legalised and they were setting out to convert all the remaining pagans. Rachel Weisz plays the central character with great sensitivity and skill: Hypatia, a pagan Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who is brutally murdered by the Christian mob (by brutally I mean stoned to death and then attached to a carriage and dragged around the square to show the people) for refusing to convert and disobeying the alleged words (and by alleged I mean that some Christian scholars argue that the letters to Timothy were not written by Paul at all) of the first epistle from Paul to Timothy 2: 9-15. This forbids women from adorning themselves in prayer and from teaching or "hav[ing] authority over a man" (NIV).

This verse is very much in keeping with the bloody and unequal historical time. Hypatia is the only female philosopher among the pagans and is only allowed to be so because her father was also a famous and learned philosopher. She has students who respect her enormously but she is not allowed any say in what happens to them and the men have to argue on her behalf. She also (along with the other pagans) own slaves whom they control absolutely. An important (fictionalised) early scene is when Hypatia's father lines up his slaves and demands to know which one of them owns a cross he has found and is therefore a Christian, saying he will whip them for it. A man slave lies and says he is Christian and takes the punishment for a fellow slave. This is an incredibly Christ-like act. Ironically, after he has converted and left Hypatia (whom he loves: another well-acted and scripted plotline) to become a free man, he becomes the one who inflicts pain on others. When Hypatia's time comes to die, he euthanises her before she is stoned rather than offering to take her place. Tragically true to form for many Christians, becoming a Christian drives out all his higher Christian instincts of love and self-sacrifice for the greater good.

I digress, but the point I am trying to make is that it is a film that handles complex moral issues and vividly portrays some of the shameful things that people do to each other because they deny other people's humanity. These shameful things also happen because people insist on being unquestioning or compromising in their search for truth.

The film also fails for me on several levels. The camera keeps zooming out to focus on the galaxy and the stars, which - in the beginning - is quite beautiful, but eventually becomes a tired cinematic trick to fill in the awkward gaps in between the narrative. This is quite frequent, as the narrative has to keep jumping years or decades, which is always done by zooming out with a few lines of text to keep the audience informed. This is a clumsy way of tying the narrative together.

The narrative itself is a kind of timeline of Hypatia's life related to growing Christian violence, and as such, is more a strung-together sequence of events than a well-structured plot.

Also, Hypatia's main concern is about whether the universe is heliocentric (sun-centred) or geocentric (earth-centred). She also spends much of the film trying to figure out how (if the earth revolves around the sun) the earth can move closer or further away from the sun if the earth moves around the sun in a circle. I felt more than a little sceptical at the thought of that level of philosophising taking place at that time. de Waal's critiques of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood making long speeches about democracy in the Middle Ages come to mind, and yet de Waal failed to comment on this kind of inaccuracy in "Agora".

I do see however, that by making Hypatia an advocate of the Heliocentric model and the Christians advocates of the geocentric model (this is clumsily done in the film), Hypatia can be indirectly compared to Galileo. He too was an advocate of the heliocentric model, and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life after being tried by the Spanish inquisition. Of course Galileo was placed under house arrest in the home of the wealthiest man in the province, but that's another story.

As Galileo is one of the heroes of the anti-Christian cause, "Agora" is clearly - for the most part - vehemently anti-Christian. I was reminded of the TED talk of Richard Dawkins in which he appealed to atheists to be out and proud. It seems the atheists have claimed Hypatia as a pre-atheist hero, and this film is one of many to come that celebrates atheism and denounces religion. It is for this reason that I imagine de Waal was so excited he over-looked "Agora"'s weaknesses.

It seems that whenever atheists see something that is pro-atheist they get so excited that their critical faculties fly away momentarily. In this they are scarily like many Christians who may feel compelled to endorse ridiculous films because they are Christian. "Agora" is better than many of those ("Faith Like Potatoes" is particularly dire) but it was not as good as de Waal made it out to be. One should get angry at the brutality and wilful ignorance of the Christians in the film, but one should not stop thinking or being critical because of it. de Waal got caught up in his own anti-Christian rhetoric, and that was when he lost both his focus for the article (the film itself which became of secondary importance) and his usual uncanny accuracy in determining the quality of a film.

"Agora" is about a violent clash between people with different beliefs. If atheists and Christians and all the people who believe in other things that I have not even got around to mentioning in this blog do not start respecting each other's beliefs and individual freedoms, I can only see more violence. It is no use saying - like Dawkins - that if everyone stops believing, there will be peace, or like the abusive and controlling Christians in the film that if everyone believes the same thing then it will be heaven on earth. Both of these are impossible situations, and the sooner people's primary priority becomes the well-being of others no matter what their beliefs (as long as, of course, those beliefs are not harmful in their turn), the less the situation in "Agora" will be repeated. Discarding one's critical faculties when being faced with these issues - even in so small a thing as a film critique - is a step in the direction of wilful ignorance for a cause, which is never a step towards a higher awareness.


  1. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorted some history in pursuit of his art. The Great Library of Alexandria didn't end as he depicted and Synesius wasn't such a jerk. However, that's what artists do. I don't go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

  2. Thanks for your recommendation. I noticed there was some interesting looking literature on Hypatia when I wrote my blog. I realise that films are never completely historically accurate, but my main gripe was that the reviewer overlooked many of the film's faults because he was blinded by his own agenda.