Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

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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Tags: classical receptions, films, films watched 2012

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