Monday, August 02, 2010

Agora Review

This is an update to a series of blogs I've run on the film Agora, about the murder of the scientist Hypatia in the 5th century A.D. (see Killings Hypatia and Weisz Is Hypatia). Until now I was responding to what other people said who saw it. But then I discovered Agora was playing at a theater in Berkeley, so Jen and I went to see it. I can now give it my own first-person review...

It was a superb film. And that's by every technical measure--acting, production, story, direction, editing, sets & costumes. It had a lavish and wisely-spent budget. And the story and performances were so excellent the film powerfully moved the both of us. We were crying by the time we left. It should be used as an example of how to direct and edit a film for emotional effect, and how to accurately depict history while still elaborating the facts with plausible and moving fictions. I fully recommend it, and am shocked it hasn't received wider release.

Factually I caught a lot of minor historical errors that were unimportant. But in all the broad strokes and details, it's actually quite faithful to surviving records. In fact, I'd recommend it as a depiction of what actually happened, provided you recognize that they filled in all the blanks with their own ideas of what "could" have happened (not just the science stuff), but even all of that was historically plausible (even the science stuff--more on that in a moment).

Many reviewers have been wrong, not evidently paying attention to the actual storyline. For instance, in one conversation the previous destruction of the Great Library is mentioned, and the Serapeum is identified as the last library left in Alexandria, and that's the one destroyed in the film, fifteen years before Hypatia dies (she isn't killed in the library, but escapes, with a few baskets of hastily rescued books). I couldn't hear the full line about how the Great Library bought it, but it didn't say the Christians; and indeed many historians have claimed it was destroyed by earlier accidents--erroneously, but the filmmakers can't be expected to know that. So in fact this remark proves they were actually trying to be faithful to the historical facts (thus answering my worries in
Weisz Is Hypatia). Incidentally, this was spoken by a character who actually explains Aristarchus' heliocentric theory and credits him by name, so Killings evidently wasn't paying attention (see Killings Hypatia).

Hypatia's discovery of elliptical heliocentrism is actually portrayed in a very historically plausible way. The only questionable bit is her plan to arrange a novel experiment in freefall (about which Killings was right, as I explained in
Killings Hypatia), but otherwise her long-standing resistance to the idea, and her undying motive to discover the truth, and her focus on beauty as a standard were all correct. It's about as believable a character trajectory as they could have conceived. (And as she dies before she can publish her discovery, their fiction conforms admirably to the facts.)

Finally, the film is not about Christianity against science. To the contrary, all the religions in the film are completely indifferent to science (an accurate depiction). Moreover, all are irrationally violent, even the pagans (likewise accurate). The movie is about religious "certainty" and zeal producing hypocrisy and cruelty and violence (regardless of creed, as all the religions in the film come off badly), while a passionate commitment to doubt produces consistent kindness and good sense (as it is always Hypatia's questioning of her or any beliefs that leads to her otherwise sensible nonviolent decisions throughout). In that respect it's a superbly crafted fable about that very point, which we all know is entirely correct, and has been throughout all history.

There is an obvious (and intended) analogy to the Middle East crisis, better informed than most (Americans tend to ignore the violent role of Christians in the history there, particularly in Lebanon and Syria but even Jerusalem as well), and more balanced than most (everyone comes off as an asshole, as is in fact the case in the Middle East, neither the Jews nor the Palestinians being worthy of praise for their equally stubborn and irrational behavior). And yet the historical reality of 4th-5th century Alexandria is not at all distorted to force this analogy. In fact, I'm sure that was the point: the situation is so frighteningly similar all religious people should be gut-wrenchingly ashamed that they haven't learned anything in fifteen hundred years.


The Nerd said...

This movie is very good for conveying what it feels like to be on the outside of religious politics looking in. I do hope it will gather more popularity, though I won't hold my breath.

flj52452 said...

A thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar does distort some history in service to his art. As you point out the Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk, but he was pretty faithful to the historical broad strokes. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion. I added a link to your previous post Killings Hypatia in my section on Hypatia and her science. Thanks for the great work!

Crinis said...

Two things: The section on what _actually_ happened to the Great Library is assumed to be known, but I don't know. Was it destroyed by xtians (or other religious zealots), or did it meet a different end? Second, what theater in Berkeley?

Sounds like a great film. I see three movies a year (including Netflix), and I'd love for this to be one of them.

Edwin said...

The Serapeum was destroyed/burned in 391 CE, ~24 years before Hypatia was killed (ca 415 CE). The Museum/Main Library may have been burned partially or fully at that point by the Xians, although there is some indication that the Muslims burne some of the collection ca 700. And it is known that many of the books made there way to Muslims who translated them to Arabic.

Richard Carrier said...

flj52452 said... As you point out the Library didn't end that way

Yes, it did. The movie didn't depict the end of the Great Library but specifically distinguished that from the Serapeum, and depicted the end of the latter, which was done more or less accurately (with some "what iffing" and negotiating of conflicting accounts).

Edwin said... The Serapeum was destroyed/burned in 391 CE, ~24 years before Hypatia was killed (ca 415 CE).

That's exactly what the movie shows: the Serapeum is sacked in 391 (and converted into a church--which is indeed what happened), and Hypatia is killed 24 years later.

(They didn't depict her aging with makeup, though--Weisz was too old for young Hypatia but too young for old Hypatia, so she played both looking much the same, which I guess splits the difference; aging effects always suck in movies anyway, so I'm glad they didn't try it).

Crinis said... Two things: The section on what _actually_ happened to the Great Library is assumed to be known, but I don't know. Was it destroyed by xtians (or other religious zealots), or did it meet a different end? Second, what theater in Berkeley?

I couldn't hear what the character in the movie said had happened to the Great Library (presumably he referenced one of the accidental burnings by various emperors that historians have erroneously posited). As to what actually happened, all evidence confirms it survived into the 6th century (though in what actual state is debatable). Then history goes dark--except for the legend that the Muslims deliberately burned its books. Which could be true (the arguments against it are mistaken on several points). But if it isn't true, we have no other account, but possibly it randomly burned at some point in the middle ages, or just withered away over several centuries from inadequate funding and care. We can only be certain that if the Muslims didn't burn it deliberately, they did nothing to maintain it. Which is almost as criminal.

Richard Carrier said...

P.S. Shattuck Cinemas of course.

tres said...

I posted a blog in Skeptic that seemed to take a view that most seemed to miss ie; that this was class war under the guise of religion. Check it out. As to Neo Platonists ignoring an empirical outlook, I don't get it. Yes their focus was metaphysical but that didnt mean they didnt want as much proof as possible for any of their postulations and carrying out experiments was a common teaching tool as was depicted in her classroom.

Richard Carrier said...

I don't get it either. Nevertheless, that's what happened: methods of empirical discovery were abandoned, "experiments" were used only to demonstrate points long since established, and rationalization overtook progress. It has something to do with the overall attitude and aims of Neoplatonism, and a kind of gospelization of prior thinkers (who could do no wrong). People just didn't believe in scientific progress anymore and were uninterested in the strict empiricism that made it possible, and curiosity was truncated to a narrow range of mystical concerns rather than knowledge of the world.