Sunday, April 08, 2012


The Philosophy Forum here hosted a movie-and-discussion of Agora last Wednesday, so I finally got around to seeing it. As a movie it was actually somewhat better than I was expecting. As a supposedly historical movie it was as bad as one could expect, and perhaps more so. Some thoughts.

(1) Rachel Weisz makes a very charming Hypatia, even though she is way too young to play a philosopher who more likely died in her sixties, and several of the other actors were quite good. Actually, I think a lot of the strength of the movie is in the acting -- it adds depth to what could have been a very two-dimensional script. Sami Samir gets too little screentime as Cyril. I also thought Rupert Evans did decently with Synesius, but I think the character was weakly written, and this hampered him somewhat. But the single best character in the movie is Ashraf Barhom's Ammonius. He's written as a straightforward religious fanatic (as the real Ammonius may well have been); in almost any other movie this would have been a caricature. But here he's played with such humor and finesse that one can see immediately how such a man could draw followers.

I remember someone saying a year or two ago that it was a little jarring that most of the good guys are light-skinned people with English accents while most of the bad guys are dark-skinned people speaking with Middle Eastern accents. And there are a few points in the movie where this does become a little jarring.

(2) I was utterly baffled through much of the film by Davus, who I think is the weakest and least intelligible character. It's interesting that all the historical characters are pretty well-rounded, even if the movie is not sticking very closely to history, while the fictional characters are all very flat or very inconsistent.

(3) Cinematic license in a movie is only justifiable by the fact that cinema largely conveys ideas by setting up situations that convey moods, and so adaptation to convey the right mood makes a great deal of sense. A lot of the license taken with history in this movie is not of this kind -- far too much, in fact. But there is some. I think the movie conveyed very well what might be called the general mood of Alexandria; Alexandria was famous for two things, philosophy and political violence, and we do get a pretty nice sense of what it would be like to live in a city dominated by thought and force in this way.

Likewise, we get a few nice bits here and there. For instance, I liked the scene in which Hypatia solves a moral problem by appealing to Euclid; even though the moral conclusion was more modern than ancient, solving ethical disputes with geometry is a very Neoplatonistic thing to do; had there been a lot more of this, that would have been great. The work the movie does to show the contrast between Christians and pagans in terms of how they treated the poor and the slaves, while not integrated very well into the rest of movie, was a nice touch, as well, because we know that this was actually an issue: one of the things that pagan Neoplatonists like Julian the Apostate really worried about was that the pagans had difficulty taking care of their own on anything like the scale that Christians took care of their own.

(4) The movie gave me a good occasion to re-read Charles Kingsley's Hypatia. Kingsley's historical novel has a somewhat implausible plot and is positively patronizing to absolutely everyone, but still manages to be quite readable. In addition, you get real Neoplatonism, which is interesting in its own right, and real fourth/fifth-century Christianity (even if filtered through Kingsley's peculiar theology), rather than the crude sketch of the movie. (Kingsley also takes a fair number of licenses, but many of his are not so noticeable due to (1) the fact that he was writing in the nineteenth century and thus is sometimes simply working from ideas that are now out-of-date; and (2) they are only occasionally gratuitous, being reasonably well integrated; and (3) Kingsley actually had some notion of what the real history was from real primary texts. Also, Kingsley is quite clear that he's presenting "New Foes with Old Faces".)

(5) On the historical inaccuracies of the movie, which are legion, see the excellent posts of Tim O'Neill at "Armarium Magnum":

"Agora" and Hypatia -- Hollywood Strikes Again
Hypatia and "Agora" Redux
A Geologist Tries History (or "Agora" and Hypatia Yet Again

Mike Flynn also has some nice posts on the real history of Hypatia:

The Mean Streets of Alexandria I
The Mean Streets of Alexandria II: When Hypatia Was a Little Girl
The Mean Streets of Alexandria III: The Deconstruction of the Serapeum
The Mean Streets of Alexandria IV: The Teachings of Hypatia
The Mean Streets of Alexandria V: After Graduation: The Calm Before the Storm
The Mean Streets of Alexandria VI: The Feud of Cyril and Orestes
The Mean Streets of Alexandria VII: Murder Most Foul
The Mean Streets of Alexandria VIII: The Aftermath
The Mean Streets of Alexandria IX: The Sources

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