As a lifelong bibliophile and Egyptophile, it’s inevitable that I’ve long harboured an affection for the ancient Library of Alexandria and her erudite librarian, Hypatia. When I saw their story was being told in a new film, I was very excited. The ancient library brought to CGI life! The awesome teacher, philosopher, astronomer and librarian Hypatia breathing and being awesome for the world to see! Hurrah!
Then, of course, I remembered how it all turned out in history, and there was a little less yayness. Philosophers generally don’t fare well in ancient history, as you may recall.
But off I went to see Agora (named after the pubilc gathering place for discussion, announcements and denunciations) with a certain amount of trepidation. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and was directed by Alejandro Amenabar.
It’s certainly a handsome film. Fourth century Alexandria has been created in Malta and the CGI computers and it’s hard to see where the set ends and the technology begins. It also has a terrific multicultural cast who all do a creditable job of bringing the period to life.
The story occurs at a time of great social turmoil (well, when isn’t it a time of great social turmoil…) where followers of the new faith of Christianity are still persecuted, though no longer fed to lions. There are regular clashes between followers of old Roman gods, Judaism and Christianity – and as these faiths clash, there is of course the inevitable oppression, discrimination, violence and “my god is better than your god” slanging matches. Which leads to the inevitable bloodbaths. Those who govern Alexandria are left to find ways to manage the city between all these violently clashing ideologies and sometimes unhelpful directions from the Emperor back in Rome.
Against this backdrop, Hypatia teachs philosophy, fraternity, science and reason. Her determination that everything must be questioned and tested and questioned again naturally comes up against a host of people who prefer blind faith.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that these conflicts lead to the sacking and burning of the library in a scene that made me cry. To see the loss of all that knowledge and art because of superstition and intolerance is hard – it’s harder still to see it knowing that this sort of thing goes on in my own lifetime. And not just in developing countries. There are regular, ugly calls to ban books, to silence debate, even vilely to declare that certain groups of people ‘deserve to die’, from all kinds of people of all kinds of faiths in all kinds of societies.
There’s a lot more of the story from that point, however, as Hypatia salvages what she can and continues to teach and to question the universe. We watch her slowly evolve a theory of the movement of the planets, starting with the then accepted Ptolemeic ideal of the Earth as the central point and heavenly bodies moving in perfect circles around it, towards a heliocentric theory – but only if she continues to challenge the basic precepts of knowlege and never to take anything as… well, scripture. Obviously, the respite can only last so long.
Agora is a film that champions reason over blind faith. The fact that 1600-odd years later, humanity is still seeking a philosphy of reason in the face of blind faiths that choose violence and oppression over debate and acceptance is kind of depressing.
I’m not sure I enjoyed the film – I found a lot of it very distressing, because its issues are still today’s issues – but I think it was a film worth seeing. Rachel Weisz is a terrific Hypatia, and Alexandria looks pretty cool. When its library isn’t on fire, anyway.