Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) teaching (Agora)
Suggested by Pindar:
Deeds are the pulse of Time, his beating life;
And righteous or unrighteous, being done,
They throb in after-throbs till Time himself
Be laid in stillness, and the universe
Quivers and breathes upon no mirror more.
—– George Eliot
Dear friends and readers,
Once more I have a remarkable film centering on a woman to urge you to rush out and see. If Winter’s Bone is an Antigone transposed to 21st century Appalachia, this one is without such disguise or variation: Alejandro Amenábar has told the story of Hypatia, daughter of the Greek mathematician and astronomer, Theron, last known member of the Alexandria Museum, today referred to as the great library. It’s thought she extrapolated from her father’s work and came up with an early explanation for the rotation of the sun that anticipated Copernicus’s picture. The historical Hypatia was flayed (her skin peeled off) and then was stoned to death by Christian fanatics. None of her writings have survived.
The film is as moving and fully meaningful as another of these rich pictorial costume drama concoctions Izzy and I saw earlier this summer, the sublime Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s The City of Your Final Destination.
Izzy wrote a fine concise blog which makes my task easier here, for I really want to recommend it speedily, for as you will see the local audiences for the film in our area have not been sustaining it:
. . . And then off we go [Izzy and yours truly on also another superhot afternoon in Alexandria, Va], where too few people were in the audience for a 4th/5th-century biopic that dared to be about a woman, especially one who could do without romance (they did have a couple of guys in love with her
but it’s not the same thing), and one that reminded us the world was once even grimmer-except not that much has changed; women are still scorned, especially if they dare step into the public sphere, and religious crazies are still taking over and killing people all over the world.
Christian crazies taking Hypatia away to be murdered as a diabolic witch and whore; this after listening to a bishop read aloud from a Bible a passage which declares it anathema for any woman to have any position in public or offer any teaching to anyone whatsoever
As an epic movie, Agora made an interesting challenge for itself, trying to alternate scenes of bloodshed and political upheaval with scenes of the heroine trying to form her own theory about the setup of the sun and Earth, though they link together well enough at the end, all too grimly, for a woman figuring out things contrary to how men have figured them out is something men still kind of can’t stand, and certainly couldn’t in the 4th/5th century. (Also the nature of the remark from her friend that causes the heroine to have her epiphany, but I won’t give that away; it was easily my favorite moment in the movie).
The visuals are breathtaking, of course, but they don’t take over in this one, except when they’re grim enough to make a point-though looking at it later, they toned down the worst of the violence — and it was still brutal.
So everyone, go see this movie . . . “
The plot-arrangement centered on the heroic life and tragic death of an early astronomer and female pagan martyr, none of whose writings have survived, Hypatia. The story line is the story of her life beginning with her early womanhood under her father, Theon’s guidance as a teacher in the great library of Alexandra:
Her father was chief librarian which enabled her to participate. That she may have taught openly becomes an important part of the story, for one of the young men in her class, Synesius (Rupert Evans) later turns on her, and another, Orestes (above), falls in love with her, asks her to marry him, is refused and spends the rest of the movie in close loving companionship and until near the end protecting her.
It’s not her terrible end that makes it the one genuinely feminist film I’ve seen in a long time. Her epiphany is not violent at all, and is about her work. She refuses to be publicly humiliated; refuses to cave in several times, on religion, on what experience is, on toleration, and other important points (as Richardson’s Clarissa would doubtless put it).
I see her clearly as in the long tradition of heroic teachers, beginning with Scheherazade, carrying on through Felicite de Genlis, and found today in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Isak Dinesen’s tales. According to Ellen Moers (Literary Women), this is a long standing female heroic trope, something women have been allowed to do (first as mothers).
It has other important themes, as several reviews have pointed out. A. O. Scott called it “chilling”: “It is entirely — not dogmatically but stubbornly — on the side of reason, science and liberalism, values opposed by superstition, fundamentalism and political expediency.” Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian: “In reviving this tale from the ancient world, Amenábar subtly invites his audience to remember the Taliban, the war on terror and the looting of Iraq’s national museum. Unlike most toga movies, it doesn’t rely on CGI spectacle, but real drama and ideas.
The destruction of the library begins it: what did this was the fanaticisms of warring religions, the fear of the pagans of the Christians which induced them to try to repress the Christians, and the Christians’ ferocious counter-attack (urged on by the newly Christian emperor’s edict). The point is not just their irrationality (as when one man performs a “miracle” by running through fire swiftly), but how these groups want to murder one another. It’s part of how people dominate one another, and (as the Marquis or Donatien de Sade says in his La Marquise de Gange, ironically):
“si consolant pour la vertu, que ceux qui l’ont persecutee doivent infailliblement l’etre a leur tour.”
“so consoling for Virtue that its persecutors ( those who have persecuted it) must unfailingly be persecuted in their turn.”
The film traces a history of one group destroying the others; we see the individual men vie for power, and two of them were pupils in Hypatia’s class as envisaged early on. As Izzy says, there is a love interest: Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who she refuses to marry and rises to be a prefect (and himself turns Christian to keep power); and there is a strong conflict between her and a male slave, Davus (Max Minghella) who attempts rape at one point. One theme he enacted is how Christianity did appeal to slaves, and for all Hypatia meant to educate him and show him respect, she’d forget herself and also show carelessly how she regarded him as her instrument, scolding him as the library falls apart as he is trying to get her to come away and she is trying to save “the important” scrolls.
Later stills of the library show it a ruin, filled with farm animals, used for frivolous entertainments or another stage for religious ordeals which often in this film end in violence.
It will not be popular among the evangelical tea-baggers crowd in the US or anywhere other intolerant group, for it indicts religions on the basis of their encouraging intolerance and wild violence (and not just the powerful corrupt people who begin to run the institutions) sharply. It’s very much a Spanish film: numbers of the semi-major figures are dressed up to look like saints and martyrs in El Greco’s movies. The viewer is assumed to be aware and remember the Inquisition in Spain, how the church supported the worst 19th century rulers in the Carlist wars and again Franco — who kept Spain in the middle ages for much of this century (with a little bit of help from Imperialist capitalist states).
It’s a parable which is intended to comment on theocracries in the middle east which (just yesterday it was reported) stone women to death for pregnancy outside marriage.
It does makes a strong use of ritual scenes and large crowd ones (part of the point) but these are made more interesting by also moving out to shoot the earth from a distance. We have a metaphysical take or perspective (dazzling visuals as Izzy says), and as in George Eliot’s films, intertitles (yes intertitles are used and skilfully) persist in framing these events as universal and felt somehow further off or in history (writing) as in Eliot’s poem (above).
But at its heart is something quiet: there are so many intimate quiet scenes of learning, of reading, and of teaching, thinking, trying to understand how the earth relates to the sun, and both to the cosmos. The script is intelligent and the acting subtle and vivid, the stage business filled with intensities, including Hypatia’s large sandbox where she traces out with her faithful servant different visions of the planet’s movements. There’s a sequence of Hypatia aboard a ship with Orestes on the water with Orestes in a classical kind of boat. I don’t know if historically accurate but it was visually stunning and I liked to see herenjoy herself out in the open too.
Rachel Weisz was marvelous in the role of strong idealist; she played the same (and was also brutally murdered) in Fernando Mereilles’s film adaptation of Le Carre’s powerful socially-concerned The Constant Gardener (an expose of drug trials, the drug industry in Africa). For Austenites, a small treat is Rupert Evans (he was Frank Churchill in the 2009 Emma) as one of Weisz’s pupils who grows up to betray her, using her teaching to make sophistical arguments on behalf of non-thinking religious belief and the destruction of any role for any woman ever. He’s not immediately recognizable:
It’s not a bit too long. As we drove to the theater, I felt some trepidation. Most of the time I can’t stand these Biblical-epics: the trailer made me remember Victor Mature and Jean Simpson in wooden dramas in togas and I did fear 2 hours and 20 minutes. But I never felt any tedium. I remember being moved at how Hypatia forgives Davus for his attempted rape, at the many dialogues of Orestes, and reasonings with texts or sits and thinks:
She was treated with dignity even at the close: we hear the stones hitting her, do not see the mess this world turns her into when all her friends desert her.
The Dinner Party, the 18th century woman astonomer, Caroline Herschel, who made the “cut” of 39.