“Agora” is Spanish Director Alejandro Amenabar’s English-language version of the life and times of Hypatia, the legendary philosophy teacher of the neo-Platonic, Ptolemaic (I’ve just been waiting to use that word) school. She also was very interested in astronomy and cosmology: specifically, whether the sun revolved around the earth, or vice versa, and what shape of orbit would explain the change of seasons. Of course, the answer is “elliptical,” but it is a matter of historical dispute whether Hypatia herself “discovered” this, or relied on the work of others, or simply helped lay the foundation for subsequent European thinkers (like Newton and Galileo). Then there is the historical debate about whether she was the last librarian at the ancient Great Library in Alexandria, which was destroyed somewhere around her time period (Carl Sagan reportedly posits this in his works, but without apparent attestation).
But this movie isn’t really about science, anyway, it’s about prejudice. Rachel Wiesz (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “The Constant Gardener”) plays a dignified and noble Hypatia, a scholarly and reflective woman trying to operate in a man’s world. She is a teacher of men, and she holds on to her own sexuality like some kind of intellectual Vestal Virgin, famously answering a potential suitor’s inquiry with a fresh sample of menstrual blood (a strident confrontation about the ownership of sexuality not lost on the cultural observers of any era). She is done in by the rise of strident Christianity, whose fiery, inquisition-like orators are portrayed as primal riot-inciters: first persecuting the Jews, then burning down the Great Library and pulling down the statues to the old Greek and Roman gods as “pagan,” then persecuting any who haven’t publicly converted, then going after Hypatia herself, who’s readily resented in this boiling cauldron of prissy patriarchy: she’s a strong-willed woman, she’s an independent intellectual, and she espouses neither a particular man nor a particular religion, which must mean she’s a witch.
Of course, the Christians here couldn’t be portrayed in a worse light: angry, violent, unreasonable, uncompromising, and insatiably bloodthirsty. Ah, would that it were not so. But, alas, there probably is some historical veracity to this horrifying portrayal of the Age Of Unreason; reportedly the “real” Hypatia was dragged through the streets naked, then her limbs severed and burned. In this film, there’s only a mercy-suffocation prior to a corpse stoning. But the indictment against those who are overly zealous for the Christian faith couldn’t be clearer, and, by inference, the fervently devout of any religion.
Yes, sincere believers of any age are easy to demonize, partly because we so readily harden zeal into intransigence, and eager conviction corrodes into seething intolerance.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.