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2. Agora (2009), dir. Alejandro Amenábar

I meant to see this when it came out, fairly obviously given the buttons of mine which it pushes. But I was busy, and it wasn't on release for very long, so I missed the chance. I popped it on my Lovefilm list instead, and its arrival has now coincided usefully with a time when I'm busy thinking about biopics in the context of my research.

As a female biopic, it follows a quite different template from the more conventional one exemplified by the Marilyn Monroe film I saw last week, in that for most of the film there is no conflict between Hypatia's public life and intellectual achievements and her personal life. She finds complete fulfilment in her work on astronomy, her harmonious relationship with her students and father, and her role as semi-official advisor to the prefect Orestes, while the men around her grumble about this occasionally, but in general are happy to leave her to it.

Given how little we really know about Hypatia's life, this is a narrative which is by no means imposed by the sources, and a more conventionally-approached biopic could very well have focused throughout on conflicts between Hypatia and a series of men who want to force her into a more traditional feminine role. I'm very glad that this one didn't - instead, if anything it probably rather over-emphasised the freedom from criticism which even a woman like Hypatia could realistically have enjoyed in the ancient world, and the extent of her scientific achievements. The victimhood which Bingham identifies as characteristic of female biopic stories obviously does intrude, shockingly and suddenly, at the end - as it has to, given that this (sadly) is the main 'hook' that has made Hypatia's story of enough interest to be transmitted to us in the first place. But even then, Amenábar does what he can to spare her suffering, by introducing the (unattested) scene in which Davus suffocates Hypatia in order to save her the pain of being stoned to death.

The film actually reweaves the historical record quite significantly, with the details of how it does so neatly summarised on Wikipedia for anyone who's interested. Most of that I'm perfectly happy about, as Hypatia's own life is not very well-documented, and the shifts of time or geography that are made generally help to build a more compelling story - e.g. linking the library and its destruction with the destruction of the Serapeum. But where I felt it fell down rather for me was in conveying a clear sense of what it was that motivated any of the violent mobs - whether Christian, pagan or Jewish - to behave as they did.

We see Davus, for example, not only converting from paganism to Christianity, but then also joining in with mob violence and eventually becoming an ascetic monk who spends his days brutally rooting out immorality across the city. But I saw too little on the screen to help me understand why he might do this - neither the unrequited nature of his love for Hypatia, nor the characteristics of the Christian religion seemed to be presented as sufficiently traumatic or attractive forces to have this effect. Nor, on the other side, did I feel I'd gathered any real sense of what motivated the pagans to go out and attack the Christians who were insulting their statues. A few words were spoken about not being able to let the insult go unavenged, but to me they felt empty when I hadn't seen any real evidence of their emotional engagement with their religion any more than I had for the Christians. Possibly the point was meant to be that it was empty and futile on both sides - but I couldn't escape the feeling that the conflicts were happening because the historical context demanded it, rather than because the characters were really driven to engage in them.

Never mind. Meanwhile, the sets, the costumes, the make-up, the props and the CGI views of the city were superb. And I loved the way that the shots of Alexandria from far up in the atmosphere, or even of the Earth from out in space, a) fitted the astronomical theme of the film, b) evoked the smallness of human lives and endeavours and c) created a sense of distance from the narrative, gently reminding us that it was taking place in a world far-removed from our own. Joanna Paul, in a paper which she presented at the Cinema and Antiquity conference last June, spoke brilliantly about the scenes showing the destruction of the library, and how they dramatise the random process of textual loss and survival, and literally show the whole world being turned upside-down - and she is absolutely right about how powerful and clever those scenes are. And more generally, how can I fail to like a film which celebrates the achievements of classical antiquity, mourns their loss to ignorance and brutality, reminds us how delicate the balance between the two always is, and revolves around a powerfully self-assured and self-directed intellectual woman? *crushes madly on Hypatia*

It's all the more of a pity in that case that some aspects of the film don't entirely make emotional sense. Some deleted scenes on the DVD help to flesh things out a little - in particular giving us some extra scenes of life amongst the elders of the Serapeum, and amongst the ascetic monks, which allow slightly more insight into their mind-sets. But even they don't quite seem to go far enough, and ultimately perhaps the story the film is trying to tell is too rich and complex to do justice to in only two hours.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2012 08:18 pm (UTC)
I liked it too though my conclusion at the end was that I needed to watch it again and think about it a bit more. The scene in the library is gutting.

Do you think it's possible to make sense out of evangelism? I've always thought of faith (like love) as basically irrational and therefore not something that needs to be accounted for. I don't understand faith or how it happens or why people think they can reason themselves into it any more than they could romantic love. Possibly this is down to years spent going to church without believing in it, going through the motions, and seeing that others were sincere but not knowing how they'd got there.
Jan. 15th, 2012 11:16 pm (UTC)
I guess what I meant about not understanding why Davus would convert, or what motivated the other Christians, or the pagans either, was really that I hadn't seen any significant emotional engagement with their faith from them on screen. I didn't need it to make sense to me, but I needed to see that it made sense to them, and that's what was missing for me. In real life, your analogy with romantic love makes a lot of sense - but in this film I just didn't see any 'chemistry' between these people and their faiths. And it may be that Amenábar wants to say that his characters are motivated as much by personal grudges, tribal pride or greed for power as they are what we would call genuine religious faith. But I also didn't see enough of that to convince me either.
Jan. 17th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
I saw this movie a couple of times last year, in connection with an event at the Greenwich Picturehouse where I was resident ancient historian. I think it is a lot more intelligent than most movies set in antiquity, but I do find it more conventional and simplistic, and therefore less interesting, than many others.

I can cope with the bending of historical accounts - the incident with the handkerchief is recorded, but there's no reason to believe that the recipient was Orestes, Synesius probably predeceased Hypatia, Theodosius' edict was not directed solely at Alexandria, etc. But, like you, I have problems with the depiction of the Christians and pagans. I can see the point that Amenabar is trying to make by depicting the parabolani semiotically as one would depict contemporary Muslims - that fanaticism is not exclusively a Muslim trait. But he does end up with the bad Christians all in black, and the good ones (Synesius and his entourage) in white. And pagans are depicted as Christians who just happen to believe in different gods - there's no attempt to engage with the different mindset of paganism, a mindset that wouldn't necessarily regard throwing fruit as a statue as constituting blasphemy. (I would also like to have seen comment that riots in Alexandria between the Jews, Greeks and Egyptians had been going on long before Christianity became a factor.)

I also have problems with the amount of the plot that is motivated by people being in love with Hypatia (and the unnecessary bath shot).

And, as I found afterwards, it does reinforce the myth that the destruction of the library at Alexandria marked the loss of much of Greek and Roman literature, because, obviously, there weren't any libraries anywhere else ... As far as I can tell, the move from rolls to codices probably caused more works to be lost, as they were deemed not worth copying over.
Jan. 17th, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
Yes to all of that. I had very high expectations of it, and not all of them were fulfilled. Which is a pity, as it gets so much so right, and if I'd gone to see it when it was first released, with very little in the way of raised expectations, I'd probably really have enjoyed it.

I'm interested in your comment about finding afterwards that it had reinforced myths about the loss of ancient literature, though. Do you mean that people were voicing this idea after showings at the Greenwich Picturehouse? I'd be interested to hear more about what sort of things they said, and indeed what your role was.
Jan. 18th, 2012 09:17 am (UTC)
This was one of the Royal Observatory's showings at Greenwich Picturehouse, where they pick out movies associated with science. I got called in by my friend Marek Kukula, as he felt for this movie they needed a historian on hand. So after the movie, where there were audience questions, I answered the historical ones as best I could.

I can't remember the exact questions I got asked, but there were certainly some from the perspective that the destruction of the Library at the end of antiquity is a Definite Historical event, and caused the loss of much ancient literature. I remember pointing out that there were other libraries in the Roman world. I've since had it come up in a student fortum, where a student was assuming that the loss of Euripides' first Hippolytus was as a result of the destruction of the library. My response then was:

No, not really, I'm afraid. There's a popular myth that the destruction of the Library at Alexandria marks a major division between the ancient world, when they had access to all the texts of Greek and Latin literature, and the modern world, when we just have a small portion of it. Leaving aside the question of just when and how the Alexandrian library was 'destroyed' (was it the Christians in 391? The Arabs in 642? Or even Caesar in 47 BCE?), it was hardly the only library in the ancient world. Of course, there were some works it had that could not be found anywhere else, but major works of literature could be found in libraries in Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Pergamum, etc.

Books survived because they were copied, and they could become lost if the last surviving manuscript was not copied before it disintegrated. The changeover from rolls to the codex (the modern book) in the second to fourth centuries CE required a great deal of recopying, and some works did not seem worth the bother; something similar happened when books written in uncial handwriting were recopied in miniscule from the ninth century. When the empire became Christianized, there was a tendency to preserve only Christian works or those pagan works felt to be morally useful (which is how Juvenal's Satires survived). In some cases the parchment used to copy books was recycled for other works. The sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade undoubtedly resulted in the destruction of some works (though it also resulted in others becoming known again in western Europe).

So it's very difficult to say exactly when a particular work was lost. All we can say is that it was known to the people who quoted it. We know that the first Hippolytus was known to Plutarch, so it was still around in the second century CE (unfortunately I don't have the materials to hand to check who else cites it and when). When the alphabetic collection of Euripides' works was made of which the Epsilon to Kappa volume is the ultimate source for a number of the surviving plays, the first Hippolytus was omitted, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was lost when this compilation was made.

There's a good article on 'texts, transmission of ancient' in the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature.
Jan. 18th, 2012 11:04 am (UTC)
That sounds like a really interesting thing to do. I'd be fascinated to hear what questions people came up with, and of course answering them would be great fun too. I like the sound of what the Royal Observatory is doing there in general, in fact - engaging people via the use of films, but then also making sure that distortions can be directly addressed. Sounds a bit like the way John Johnston and Debbie Challis are using those Egyptian films at the Petrie Museum.
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