Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Agora"... phobic?

In the new film, “Agora,” Rachel Weiss plays Hypatia, an atheist astronomer in 4th century Alexandria who is persecuted by the Christians who are taking power. After the movie a quick check online revealed that there is more historical fact in this movie then I would have guessed. Still it is clearly more concerned with drama than history!) As an atheist and an outspoken woman – indeed, the only identifiable woman in the film – Hypatia is an easy target for the new order.

While the Christians are the real villains of the piece Jews and Pagans don’t come off very well either. This film will be quite a thrill for some of my atheist friends. My religious friends will see the story as a warning against fundamentalism and bigotry (and sloppy, simplistic writing!) Then again, my religious friends are not the fundies and tight-asses who are portrayed as the heavies here, Christians, Pagans, Jews….

But no Muslims in this story… or are there? This was 300 years before Muhammed (pbuh) so of course there couldn’t be, but this is Egypt! The architecture is Roman/Egyptian, but the clothes and arid landscapes are clearly mid-eastern. The worst of the Christians – Cyril and Ammonius – are played by Arab actors (Sami Samir and Ashraf Barhom, respectively). The more European looking actors are mostly accomodationists, “pragmatists,” and other “useful idiots” who, foolish or opportunistic, end up working for the new order.

The story is one of mid-eastern religious fundamentalists taking over and destroying a scientific, free-thinking woman – and indeed science and free-thinking. Silencing the brave, brilliant, atheist woman will set astronomy back by 1200 years. While Hypatia is teaching astronomy in the Library of Alexandria, we don’t hear from less educated voices until the religious zealots have taken over, destroyed the great library, and then spout the common ignorance of flat-earthers. See how they spread and enforce ignorance? Never mind the fact that, with few exceptions, people of all religions were in those days even more abysmally uneducated than today’s Fox News viewers.

Also never mind that the keepers of wisdom and literature at the library were also religious, and that Christians were among the students. The traditional Romans are more European in appearance and outlook, and their religion more formal than obviously heartfelt. Where they fight for their religion it seems more a defense of the existing class structure and their own privilege than of any theological precept. One religious community attacks another. Never are individuals brought up for crimes. Amenabar preaches that religion is dividing and atheism is more open and reconciling.

But even this formal Roman culture of intellect that is only formally religious is more open and accepting than the darker skinned riff-raff in their dark eastern robes and dark headscarves who are spreading their newly tolerated upstart religion and… well… darkness.

Of course, it’s 4th century Alexandria. These horrible fundamentalists threatening to destroy all wisdom, light, and freedom can’t possibly be Muslims. Or can they? And if the more intellectual and assimilated members of the new religion then ended up serving as bridge for the fundamentalists, what is the implication for the moderates of today? Is Amenabar here preaching tolerance? Or is he saying that only so much can be tolerated? He says his movies are to provide questions, not answers. The biggest question here is, what questions does he really intend to ask?

1 comment:

flj52452 said...

A thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (the Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. I don't go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.