dir: Alejandro Amenabar
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It’s about time there was a biopic about the life, loves and times of Hypatia. You know, the famous 4th century mathematician and philosopher? One of the most renowned and virtually unknown women of antiquity?
Okay, unless you were a desperate and insecure teenage boy who struck upon the brilliant strategy of reading up on feminist icons believing that it would somehow result in some girl with low standards throwing you a pity grope every now and then, you might not have heard of her. But I had, and so when I heard that the director of Open Your Eyes, The Others and the superb The Sea Inside was making a biopic about this Hottie from History, I thought, “meh…”
Still, it’s turned up in our cinemas this week, and in a choice between watching something enjoyable, and watching something edifying, I chose Agora over, let’s say Monsters, or The Town.
More fool me.
Agora is the rare case of a biopic that works despite being about a person who’s not that interesting, and with not one but two ‘wrong’ performances from two of the main characters, but which still gets enough of the feel right and the depiction of the setting looks impressive enough to make you feel like it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
Sure, Rachel Weisz’s performance as Hypatia is not good, in fact it was downright painful, but she doesn’t even feel like the main character of her own story.
The real story being told is the early years of the Christian Church. After centuries of persecution, Christians in this part of the world were of sufficient number and inclination to start threatening the status quo. The story is set in Alexandria, Egypt, when it was one of the last bastions of the post-Hellenic world. They still had the Lighthouse and the Library and all! Sure, the Romans are still in charge, but Alexandria is depicted as being a mishmash of Greek and Egyptian enlightenment, with the dirty Christian hordes howling at the gates.
Before the shit hits the slaves who operate the palm-frond fans, Hypatia passes her days teaching the highborn elite of Alexandria. They never really explain how it is at a time when women were considered, for all their beauty and general wonderfulness, to be little smarter than cattle, that Hypatia became so highly regarded. We can infer, with little help from the movie, that it was both her father Theon’s (Michael Lonsdale) wealth, indulgence and his pride in the sheer magnitude of her intellect and mathematical ability that naturally brought her to the fore.
As she teaches her young charges, many of whom are to become the political and religious leaders of their world, they argue from the start along religious lines, some favouring the old gods, others ranting about how the Christians are now in the ascendant, and that everyone will soon have to convert to the religion of peace and forgiveness or be killed violently. She reminds them that they are all brothers. “We are all brothers,” she says, in case we didn’t get the point.
That calms her students down a tad. For a few minutes. Then they can spend some time waxing rhapsodically about the movement of the planets, and the structure of the solar system, which, this being 1600 years ago, they’re flying blind. They, like those who came before (like Ptolemy) and after, are operating under false paradigms (like the geocentric model of the solar system, as opposed to the heliocentric), very limited observations and technology, and the Euclidean geometry and mathematics of their time to try and explain the movements of the heavens.
And they can’t. Even Hypatia, with all her brilliance, can’t yet explain or understand either the forces that act upon the planets, or the forces that act upon the hearts of men. The film takes many opportunities to ‘show’ Alexandria from a distance, beyond an Olympian distance: from an orbital distance. It’s as if it’s trying to say to these brilliant and foolish mortals, if only they understood what the world was really like, and how it spins around every 24 hours, and orbits the sun in an ellipse, if only they had the perspective that comes with that knowledge, then maybe they wouldn’t do the evil that they do.
It’s an interesting theme. It’s ludicrous, since these days knowing that the Earth is a sphere, and the combinations and permutations of its seasonal changes and its relationships with the other planets, and the theory of gravity and relativity and evolution and such doesn’t stop people killing others in religious wars, or raping and killing each other. In fact, it’s increased their motivation and killing power by three thousand per cent.
Look at me, going on, and on, and I haven’t even explained why the flick is called Agora. Well, the flick never explains it either, so, um, you’re shit out of luck if you think I’m in any position to explain it to you. An agora was a public square which doubles as synonym for both the ‘marketplace of ideas’ concept and just an actual marketplace where people sell their fatted oxen and their unwanted daughters. Also, it’s the place where people could engage in public debates, arguing over who would win in a fight: jellyfish, Spartan warrior or pirate? Is it a good title for this flick? Probably not. It doesn’t sound exotic enough, and probably confused five of the seven people that would have gone to see it otherwise.
They should have just called it Hypatia. Of course, then some of the scuzzier individuals in the potential viewership would have gone along thinking it was a biopic of the 1980s pornstar called Hypathia Lee, all of whom would have been bitterly disappointed as they zipped up their pants and burned out of the theatre in a prissy huff.
This being movie-making, they sex up the story, or at least make it something of a love story, mostly with the intent of taking the sting out of the ending. Hypatia has a slave called Davus (Max Minghella), who is highly intelligent, and highly in love with his owner, but is still a slave. That can’t be helped, can it?
Or can it? The rise not of Christianity but of militant Christians (called the ‘parabolani’, and Davus’s conversion to the latest, hot new religion, gives him an out. It gives him a power he never could have had, previously. It also makes him brood, fume, and generally make smoky fuck-me eyes at Hypatia for the entire goddamn flick’s duration. Put it this way; Max Minghella, who’s a decent actor (in other stuff, goddamn not in this flick, that’s for sure), puts in a weighty performance where he seems to have blended together all the worst overacting traits that Russell Crowe and Joseph Fiennes have ever committed to celluloid. It’s painful. He’s still better than Rachel Weisz, but it’s just so goddamn comical that it unbalances the flick, and makes me enjoy the moments where neither Hypatia nor Davus are on screen.
And the role is so crucial that it can’t help but hurt the flick. Of course it means we get to see Davus grow a beard and take part in the massacres of pagans, and then the Jews, and then a certain lady who raises the eye of the megalomaniacal Bishop Cyril (Sami Samir).
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We’re meant, really, to be seeing the actions of these militant Christians as a corollary to the religiously-inspired violence that we’ve being seeing over the last thirty or so years. It’s also a timely reminder that the longest running and most powerful corporation the world has ever known, being the Christian Church, has a long, torturous and brutal history of being torturous and brutal to its enemies, perceived and otherwise. We are meant to see the destruction of the Library of Alexandria as the starting of the dimming of the light that led the world into the Dark Ages, so named, if you take this flick at face value, because the zeal of the Christians in dominating that region led to acts not in compliance with their stated beliefs.
It ain’t history, but it is a narrative, after all. I don’t need to be reminded about the evils of the Church, or the evils of those claiming they were operating on behalf of the Church, or Jesus, or any God. I’m fully appraised. And whilst I did enjoy some of the scenes where Hypatia is reasoning out her theories regarding the movement of the “wanderers”, which is what they call the planets, in the end, I ultimately don’t see her fate at the Church’s hands as any more tragic than the fates of millions of women from time immemorial who have died and been brutalised for countless stupid reasons.
For all that, the stronger bits of the flick come when her students, such as the regional prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac, who seems to be playing royals in everything lately, like his petulant stint as the despicable King John in the recent snoreworthy Robin Hood), and Synesius (Rupert Evans), argue and manoeuvre as they try to maintain power in a world where the word of God, as told to them by a man with hundreds of rock-throwing thugs at his beck and call, is All.
The problem for the flick is that Hypatia has little to do or say in any of these machinations going on around her. If she was really that interesting and important as a person, the film fails to get that across to the viewer. She is portrayed as a martyr to the cause of reason and science in the face of orthodoxy, but, considering the era, and her lack of agency, or self-regard, it’s hard to see her as such. She died the way that thousands of women died, even today, whether it’s with stones being thrown at them, or a state imposing constrained lives upon them, or at the whims of whatever men so take it as worth doing in their tiny minds.
As a tragedy, the reality of what I described resonates far more than this lazy attempt at significance and Oscarbaiting through portraying Someone from History who might have done Something and Died for It. But it’s not a complete failure, because it’s a reminder as well of what happens when an oppressed minority gets its time to shine, and the changes they can bring upon an entire civilisation.
Which means, you know, be nice to the Scientologists while there's still time, or else when their time comes...
6 times I kept thinking that Rachel Weisz certainly looked the part, and yet regrettably would keep dispelling the willing suspension of disbelief every other time she spoke out of 10
“If I could just unravel the sky just a little bit more, and get a little closer to the answer, then... Then I would go to my grave a happy woman.” – I wonder if she’ll get the chance – Agora.