Thursday, 16 May 2013

Beautiful, Intelligent, and Utterly Pernicious: A Review of Agora

 I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum although some plot details will be needed for the review to make sense. Also this review is to do with the ideas presented in the film rather than the technical or acting aspects.

Agora is ostensibly a biopic of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia who lived in Alexandria around the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century AD. Accounts of her life are sketchy and none of her own works, if indeed she wrote any survived. The fairest and most detailed account of her life and the events in Alexandria come from Socrates of Constantinople, a contemporary writing at the beginning of the 5th century. He was also a Christian and this is worth bearing in mind.  In cases such as this where primary sources are minimal there is predictably, and perhaps necessarily, considerable scope for poetic licence. Added to that there is the obvious need when staging an expensive historical epic to put on something of a show. All of this should not distract us from taking seriously what this film has to say; or rather what it wants Hypatia to say to us as Westerners in the 21st century. All evocations of the antique world play on the fantasy and dream like perception we have of those times, steeped as they are in the Western cultural consciousness. But like Freud knew, when dealing with dreams what matters is not so much the dream content as the dream work. How does the dream rearrange familiar objects and characters, and what precisely does this arrangement aim to say about our own time?

The cinematography is outstanding throughout, recreating the life of a turbulent multicultural city in the Eastern Roman Empire. Much credit should go to the set designers and location managers who bring Alexandria to life as a crowded, dirty and often dangerous place to as faithful degree as possible. But behind the visual historical fidelity there are I would argue two ideals at work around which the story rotates; these being the character of Hypatia herself, and the Library of Alexandria. Now, Hypatia was a philosopher in late antiquity, but the character Rachel Weisz personifies is far closer to a modern liberal scientist, an independent and secular woman of reason. The role of science (which in the 4th century was not distinguished from philosophy) is written large in her character. She is seen grappling with problems of astronomy and mathematics, the director even going so far as to suggest she was on the verge of overturning Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe. This is a total fiction but crucially it projects a very modern scientific view onto Hypatia, and it is this distortion that we are invited to identify with. Hypatia is to be seen reaching across the centuries as one of us. Her virtue is also exemplified to a preposterous degree as she is seen working with slaves, even allowing one slave to give a presentation to her class. She expounds a doctrine of liberal tolerance to bickering Christian and Pagan students and shows forgiveness in a way Christians would wish to claim only they can.  All this is one side of the antagonistic opposition that the film depicts. On the other side are the religious believers.

It has been a historical commonplace ever since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to depict the story of the late Empire as a gradual conversion to Christianity and absolutism, and with it (even perhaps because of it) the disintegration of the classical world and the entry into the Middle Ages. Christians have been the fall guy in this story for a long time but Agora is singularly unique in its portrayal of all religion as intolerant and destructive. We see Pagans attacking Christians, Christians attacking Pagans, Christians attacking Jews and Jews attacking Christians. Alexandria however was known to be an especially volatile city long before Constantine gave the nod to Christ, with riots and violence of all kinds being perpetrated by forces imperial, religious and otherwise. But director Amenabar want us to see this complex period in a very particular light.

The set piece of the first half of the film is the storming of the Serapeum, the temple dedicated to the Pagan god Serapis. Now here is where the other ideal, the library of Alexandria comes in. I won’t deviate with a lengthy excursus on the history of the library but the main point to note is that the fate of the library is unknown. It is known that one part of the Serapeum was used to store books that were recovered when the original Royal Library of Alexandria was destroyed (how this happened is also disputed). There were at least two other occasions prior to 390AD that the library may have been destroyed but even then whether all or even most books were lost is unknown. Second point to note is that there is no evidence that after the Serapeum was closed when Pagan worship was banned under the edict of emperor Theodosius I that any books were burnt, or even that any were still stored in the building. But ideals have a hold on the contemporary mind, and when the modern viewer unsullied by the nuances and incompleteness of historical data witness the spectacle of bearded religious hordes gleefully burning the contents of what we are told is the greatest library on earth, full of the wisdom of humanity, it is not the rational mind that is being called upon to respond. The cinematographer knows your pain and when the mob enter the domed classroom smashing the instruments and tearing up books, the camera rotates 180 degrees; it is the death of the classical city, the world turned upside down.

Another striking image is a high angle (God’s view) shot of the Christians scuttling about like insects burning books in the courtyard. The image of book burning is not the only stock trope of 20th century ignorance called upon in the film. It should by now be clear how the director has arranged the pieces in his dream, what fundamental antagonism he want you to witness and deplore. No, not Gibbon’s 18th century thesis of Decline and Fall, but the post 9/11 world of clashing civilizations; the world of secular scientific reason under threat from the intolerant religious barbarians. Despite Agora’s generally intelligent screenplay there are still moments of almost brazen didacticism. How naive to think we had finally changed laments Roman prefect Orestes after one bloody conflict, aping the Oxford view ala Richard Dawkins. Bishop Cyril publicly reads a notoriously misogynistic passage from the bible (1 Timothy 2:8-15 if you want to look it up) and is seen amongst a baying crowd of Christian monks called the Parabalani venerating an executed man as a martyr; a word we now commonly associate with terrorism and fundamentalism. The latter scene is of particular note as it ignores sources that report this was not a popular move; other Christians being uncomfortable with the title martyr as he had been executed for attacking a Roman official not for refusing to deny Christ. 
In the last instance what all of this serves to obscure is the central role of power in the sorts of conflicts we see in Agora. Even Wikipedia, that bastion of detailed analysis has the events in Alexandria into which Hypatia was drawn as to do with Bishop Cyril and prefect Orestes. In a city like Alexandria the prefect could often end up an isolated figure with the army away on the frontier and being faced with a mass of near starving poor on the one hand and tax dodging civic notables on the other. Owing to the institution of Christian charity which the film does depict but without comment, the Bishops of major cities were increasingly important figures, not least in their potential ability to mediate between the imperial administration and the mob. This function of free speaking to power was a role which had often been afforded to philosophers in earlier times. The Christian Socrates of Constantinople reports that Hypatia was “of careful mind in performing the public duties affecting her city, [her] self-possession and freedom of speech derived from her culture”. She could do little however in the Roman administration’s struggle to maintain order between the various sects and groupings in Alexandria despite being the prefect’s preferred council. The Bishop however could speak to the Christian mob and the poor. The role of the philosopher and the ideal of the classical city that she carried with her was slowly displaced. Despite Orestes old world sensibility the tide had turned, he could not afford to ignore Cyril in this new climate. These are the wider events that the story of Hypatia brings to tragic focus, not the very modern ideological perspective that this film wants to present.  For let us not forget that the idea of a clash of civilizations and the unquestionable correctness of western reason has been used and is still being used to justify military intervention in Islamic world. It is after all from recent conflicts that Agora derives many of its images. Be they woman hating fundamentalists, book burning bearded fanatics, or murderous men after martyrdom, this director, like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris before him damns all faith but principally takes aim at Islam.

I would not go so far as to call Agora propaganda for militant atheists, although I’m sure they’ll like it. What stops it being propaganda is the film’s mostly intelligent screenplay, the wonderful attention to visual if not historical detail, and the very fact that this story from a little exposed era of history has even been given such epic cinematic treatment at all. I identify with Hypatia as so many have done down the centuries (even Christians), but I do not identify with the crude and obscurantist perspective that the film makers want to project onto her. If philosophy means anything it is the solemn and necessary duty to subject power to critique. Agora’s perspective is borne of power, the power to bomb civilians with unmanned drones, to manipulate public opinion through mass media, and to stoke up fear and prejudice and call it enlightenment. Power re-writes history in its own image, the duty of critique is to unravel it.