Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Vanished Library and "Agora"

At a friend's suggestion, I saw Agora two nights ago and I confess I'm still digesting it, but I can relate what mixed reactions I have so far.

Having long been an amateur student of this period, I found the subject matter and theme fascinating. I was reminded of a book I read long ago, The Vanished Library (Luciano Canfora), which didn't go into the story of Hypatia, but did develop the entire mystery of what happened to the Great Library of Alexandria, which was established by the Ptolemies who ruled after Alexander the Great, a repository of all knowledge in the ancient world.

I have no issues whatsover with any "artistic license" that was taken with historical fact.  The criticisms I've heard here are completely irrelevant to good storytelling with a message.  The message itself was both powerful and relevant to today.  Not just in regard to dangers of a resurgent Christianity, as some I know (not in this group) have mentioned.  Not just as a parallel to the rise of Islam in the modern world.  (The infiltration of Islam into Western countries with the spread of Sharia law, especially.) But metaphorically -- the barbarian, reason-hating Christians could just as well represent the post-Modern Left sacking the legacy of Western civilization and butchering Reason.

The directing was excellent, and stayed true to the "view from space" that was established in the opening sequence: there were many fascinating shots directly overhead the ancient Library of Alexandria, showing the Christians and other Alexandrians running, fighting, fleeing through the streets.  I felt the godlike perspective of watching the harmless, random, even childish antics of ants, and how whatever greatness the people of that time had achieved -- in the Library, in the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the seven Wonders of the ancient world), and more -- could have been reduced to such self-destructive behavior.

The art direction was possibly the finest I've ever seen.  I marvel at how they created the sets, mattes, CG and costumes.  I couldn't tell which I was looking at, but I felt like I was in 391 AD.  The cinematography and lighting direction were also superb -- almost every frame in that movie I could frame and put on my wall.
Where I'm mixed on the movie is the script and acting.  Neither were terrible--but neither were great.  The acting was competent, but I felt like I was watching something just barely a notch above a made-for-TV movie.  Most of the actors struck me as struggling to deliver their lines -- but honestly struggling, and trying to learn and do better throughout the film, as if they sensed they had been handed a great responsibility and were doing something important enough to demand their best.  Hypatia was a bit wooden, and perhaps the best of all, but for all the lead characters we needed the power of a Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix or the presence of a Connie Nielsen (by way of comparison to Gladiator).

Another big shortcoming of the script was that it needed a stronger love story.  Yes, the movie was about a woman who was devoted to ideas.  But should the archetype of ideas represent a Platonic Ideal, divorced from Earthly concerns?  Yes, the movie displayed Orestes' love for Hypatia, as well as the conflicted love of her slave, Davus.  But it all had a very Victorian quality: repressed and formal that was just barely compensated by Davus nearly raping Hypatia during the sacking of the Great Library.  Contrast, however, with the similar scene of Roark and Dominique in The Fountainhead.  (With Roark compared to Hypatia, and Hypatia compared to Dominique...)

What was very good about the script is what it attempted, how close it came to achieving it, and how it attempted it.  Hypatia's fascination with the heavens was a brilliant counterpoint to the earthiness of the barbarians. I felt this from the opening sequence as we viewed the Earth from space.  Not only did this make a subtle parallel to Hypatia's love of the Heavens that was only evident as the story progressed (and thereby her love of reason was heavenly...), but it conveyed that eerie sense I alluded to earlier, that I was in 391 AD.  This was aided by photography that had the feel of looking at a color photograph faded with age.

The only thing that took me out of 391 AD even slightly was the opening text crawl establishing the setting and period, and the text at the end describing Hypatia's fate. I can't criticize the need for something, given that it was a historical drama, but my temptation would have been to delete the text crawl at the opening, end the film on fade to black, wait 15 seconds, and then run all the text as a separate footnote to the story.

In general, the script was somewhat beyond the ability of the screenwriters. I say "somewhat" -- they didn't fail, but they didn't succeed spectacularly.  The action wasn't strongly motivated enough, the conflicts weren't developed enough, and the relationships didn't exhibit enough passion or impact. The dialogue did have it's moments, but were more about competence than brilliance. 

Overall, the motivation of the action could have been alleviated with more screen time (at least an extra half-hour), but the development of the human conflicts and dialogue simply needed a stronger writer.

Overall, it reminded me somewhat of 1492, Conquest of Paradise--a movie that wasn't bad, but was far from great, either, though which ended on one fine scene.  Columbus, back from the New World, is confronted by Sanchez in the court of Queen Isabella (if I'm remembering correctly), a "practical" man in the seat of government who held the idealistic Columbus in contempt: 
Sanchez:  [disgusted] You're a dreamer.
Columbus: [looking out a window] Tell me, what do you see?
Sanchez:  [pausing] I see rooftops, I see palaces, I see towers, I see spires that reach... to the sky! I see civilization!
Columbus: All of them built by people like me. No matter how long you live, Sanchez, there is something that will never change between us. I did it. You didn't.
If not for this final scene, I'd say 1492 wouldn't be worth watching.  But it did have this scene. Agora needed something like it to counter the terrible tragedy of the end, Hypatia's death.  However, Agora did have a stronger storyline, and while its best scenes were somewhat more diluted than the final scene of 1492, the overall effect was stronger, and this redeemed the movie with me.

As a last note, a day after watching Agora, I had an odd feeling -- of deja vu. I realized I identified strongly with, of all people ... Hypatia. It must be a sign of the times.


  1. Robb,

    Here are links to a critique of the movie from a secular historian blogger. He argues that the movie distorted the actual history to make anti-Christian arguments. Even though he is secular, he says that Hypatia was not killed because her science challenged Christian views but because of non-scientific political concerns. He also points out how the movie distorts history in other ways.

    The first link is the blogger's review of the movie. The other links are more of his commentary about how New Atheist secularists pervert history to further their agenda.

    I'm an O'ist so I have no love of Christianity, but what this guy is really saying is that actual history needs to be taken into account and that distorting it does not aid any atheist movement. That seems to be what the movie was doing: distorting history to bash Christianity.

    That said, I agree with your artistic assessment of the movie. Oh, one other thing, the costumes were apparently off. The Roman infantry as depicted were Republican ere troops. But in reality they would have looked like pro-medieval knights. This was the 4th century after all.


  2. To a quick glance, the accounts on the web support the story that Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob, and I've read it elsewhere too (for example, Durant). There are references to disputes among scholars as to the veracity of the stories, but the original evidence is limited to a few ancient sources. At a guess, I suspect what's going on with "secular scholar" Tim O'Neill is that he's attracted to a fringe interpretation in order to be different. Maybe that's too harsh, but he's arguing against a lot of people on the basis of disputing the source material everyone is relying upon. He needs more evidence.

    All that said, arguments about historical "accuracy" completely miss the point of what a dramatic depiction is about, and for. That's another topic.
    Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Patriarch Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled. One day in March AD 415,[27] during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks[27] led by a man identified only as Peter, who is thought to be Peter the Reader. The Christian monks stripped her naked and dragged her through the streets to the newly Christianised Caesareum church, where she was brutally killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostraca (pot shards) and set ablaze while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death.
    Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, like Hypatia, was a pagan (non-Christian). Orestes was an adversary of the new Christian bishop, Cyril, a future saint. Orestes, according to the contemporary accounts, objected to Cyril expelling the Jews from the city, and was murdered by Christian monks for his opposition.

    Cyril probably objected to Hypatia on a number of counts: She represented heretical teachings, including experimental science and pagan religion. She was an associate of Orestes. And she was a woman who didn't know her place. Cyril's preaching against Hypatia is said to have been what incited a mob led by fanatical Christian monks in 415 to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, stripped her, killed her, stripped her flesh from her bones, scattered her body parts through the streets, and burned some remaining parts of her body in the library of Caesareum. Hypatia's students fled to Athens, where the study of mathematics flourished after that. The Neoplatonic school she headed continued in Alexandria until the Arabs invaded in 642.
    In 415 Hypatia was tortured to death by religious zealots following the new Christian patriarch Cyril of Alexander. This assassination was thought to be linked to her association with Orestes, a non-Christian prefect. Hypatia's fame grew when news of her brutal death was heard. Her martyrdom was praised and probably caused other scholars to leave Alexandria.
    At the age of 45 Hypatia was brutally murdered by a mob. The reasons behind her violent death are in dispute, though her personal independence and pagan beliefs seem to have created hostility among Alexandria's Christian community. Another contributing factor appears to have been her alliance with Orestes, the pagan governor of the city, and a political adversary of Cyril (c. 375-444 A.D.), the Alexandrian bishop. After Hypatia was killed, her works perished, along with many other records of ancient learning, when mobs burned the library, destroying the entire collection.

  3. At a guess, I suspect what's going on with "secular scholar" Tim O'Neill is that he's attracted to a fringe interpretation in order to be different.

    Actually, I see that even though he's secular he has just admitted to there being no conflict between religion and science and he thus disagrees with the "conflict thesis" between Christianity and the development of science. So, he's ideologically corrupt. I didn't know that before.

    He did provide direct quotes from several ancient sources though that made what appeared to be a good argument that Hypatia was not killed directly over science. But I see that this is issue is hotly contested; which is not a surprise when you think about it.

    All that said, arguments about historical "accuracy" completely miss the point of what a dramatic depiction is about, and for. That's another topic.

    I agree with this but I do think that there is a "limit" to how far historical events can be stretched. The movie "The Patriot" with Mel Gibson comes to mind. That movie seemed to me to use the Revolutionary War to make an anti-war point. There were many other things wrong with it too. But your general point is right; art has higher priority than accuracy; Aristotle's comparison between the poet and the historian and all that...

    D. Bandler


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