Those of us who have come in the generations since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment tend to think of the acquisition of new knowledge as a general progression, more or less marching forward. Since Edward Jenner first discovered a natural vaccine for smallpox, medicine has given us one cure after another. Previously devastating diseases such as diphtheria, the measles, and the whooping cough have been, if not eradicated, at least made manageable. And our knowledge of the universe has grown. It was only in the past century that scientists theorized and, later, confirmed the Big Bang Theory. For all intents and purposes we have discovered how the universe as we know it has come to be. Most of us expect these breakthroughs. What will the next discovery be? Will it be a vaccine for HIV? Or will we ever figure out where all the matter that made up the Big Bang originally came from?
The stunning new picture Agora warns us not to take these advances for granted; reason must be nurtured and protected because people tend to lose their heads. The movie tells the (nominally) true story of Hypatia, a 4th century philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. The Roman Empire is coming to its close, Christianity is rising, and times are uncertain. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) has detached herself from the squabbles between Christians and pagans and Jews and has devoted her life to her work and teaching. She believes that the keys to true knowledge lie not in faith but in reason and observation (maybe an anachronistic point of view, but it never bothered me). Hypatia, however, cannot remain outside of the inter-faith rivalries as fanatical Christians gain power over the populace and define her and her friendship with the prefect of the city, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), as a symptom of all the city’s problems. How can the Christians truly have power if the nominally Christian Orestes trusts the advice of Hypatia, a pagan woman who does man’s work, over the counsel of Bishop Cyril (chillingly brought to life by Sami Samir). Hypatia continues her work despite the growing danger around her.
In the movie Hypatia has been struggling with the problem of inconsistent orbital paths for years, a subject with which many astronomers in the ancient world grappled. Philosophers believed that the Earth stood at the center of the universe while the heavenly bodies orbited around it. The circle was thought to be the most perfect shape and the heavens are necessarily perfect ipso facto they orbited around us in perfect circles. But observations inconsistent with this explanation troubled Hypatia. Sometimes the Sun is closer and sometimes it is farther. The orbit Mars also appears inconsistent, seeming to jump forward and backward (consistent with observing a moving object from another moving object). Hypatia tries to come to terms with these discrepancies and even, against her own logic, toys with a heliocentric model. There is a wonderful moment when she dismisses heliocentrism because of its apparent fallacies. If the Earth is indeed moving, why doesn’t the movement produce a constant wind? And why doesn’t something dropped from a building fall at an angle, taking into account the movement of the ground beneath it?
Hypatia’s astronomical meditations are punctuated by what would at first glance appear to be a fairly standard love triangle. Davus (Max Minghella), a young slave of Hypatia’s family, falls in love with her. He eagerly listens and takes in everything she says, even building a model of the solar system (or geo-system for them) largely to show her that he is smarter than the average slave (which he is) and convince her that they could be married. Of course she does not pay him or any other man any attention. The more she takes him for granted the more she reminds him of his status as a slave and the more he realizes he will never have what he wants, he moves closer to Christianity, a religion that tells its followers they don’t have to be content with social and economic inequality, that the world can be changed for the better.
The journey of Davus is remarkable anchored by a great performance by Minghella. He evolves from a naïve, trusting slave who wears his heart on his sleeve, to a hardened, fanatical thug for Bishop Cyril, to something somewhat more complex. It is hard not to feel for him, even as he perpetrates atrocities against the non-Christians of the city because we know he is not the demon his actions would suggest he is; times and circumstances have reduced him to brutality. But there is goodness and justice in his heart (which will all come to bear in an emotionally retching conclusion, which sent the man across the aisle from me into audible tears.)
Oscar Isaac, who was one of the bright spots in this year’s otherwise dismal Robin Hood as the evil King John, delivers some unexpected depth to his portrayal of Orestes, the third point in the aforementioned love triangle. He, like Minghella’s Davus, begins the story in love with Hypatia and we immediately assume he will be the villain in the triangle – he is brash, petulant, and hotheaded. He aggressively woos Hypatia both publically and privately, much to Davus’ chagrin. He argues heatedly with fellow Christian students, even taking part in a massacre of Christians early in the picture. But Isaac’s Oresetes, like Hypatia and Davus, is a product of his time. As they change so does he, transforming from a young pagan cynic to a respected member of the Christian community and Prefect of the city. Director Alejandro Almenábar (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mateo Gil) allows history to interrupt standard movie clichés and creates a beautifully layered and complex experience. They created realistic, complicated people and placed them in historical realities that did not allow for conventional resolutions.
Buttressed by these strong performances Almenábar subverts our expectations, taking both Orestes and Davus down paths I wasn’t able to predict. Instead of plugging Hypatia, Orestes, and Davus into a cookie-cutter formula, he allows the characters to change and develop as the social and political realities around them deteriorated. They created real characters and asked how those people would have reacted in this setting. Their arcs aren’t always predictable.
Hypatia’s arc is less observable and more predictable. (I see her as the antithesis of Bishop Cyril – like her he is uncompromising and devoted to what he believes – the difference is her belief system necessitates tolerance for those who disagree with her while his does not.) Weisz embodies the assurance of Hypatia completely. Even as the world plunges into chaos around her Weisz moves around with a calm confidence only years of study and experience can bring. Her eyes penetrate everything around her, taking it all in, looking for any hint to help solve the great problems swirling in her head. Unfortunately she is less competent at penetrating the motives and desires of the men (and they are all men) around her. She cannot see the love of Davus and what it might cause him to do, or the devotion of Orestes and how it might endanger them both.
The movie is incredibly rich. It is visually stunning, especially the sweeping overhead shots of Alexandria (though the overhead shots from space, while mostly effective, do show the Suez Canal). And the story is meaty, chalk full of intellectual clashes and emotional battles. When one of Hypatia’s former students, now a bishop for another town, pleads with her to convert to Christianity and stop her work in order to save her life, she sadly shakes her head and tells him he, as a man of religion, cannot question his beliefs; she on the other hand must question hers. In that one statement she gets to the heart of the divide between science and religion. The only way to get to the truth about the universe she has to unravel past misconceptions, a practice religion by nature is unwilling to do. Only by rejecting the geocentric model and questioning the circular orbits (which would have been like asking a Christian to reject the divinity of Jesus Christ) could an ancient astronomer begin to untangle the truths about our universe.
Of course it is an invention that Hypatia worked on the problem of orbital paths and, at the very last, discovered the true paths are not circles but ellipses. This is a convenient but effective device used by Almenábar and Gil to advocate for reason over superstition, for scientific freedom over religious bigotry. Whatever discoveries Hypatia or any other thinker of that period may have made are lost, setting back scientific advances a thousand years until Renaissance thinkers could begin to undo the damage. Fanaticism and superstition halted scientific progress in Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries, much as it threatens today. Every time we have to fight off creationism in the schools or pretend there is still a scientific debate about global warming, we move closer to the intellectual chaos of the medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Almenábar has constructed both an entertaining film and crafted a smart intellectual challenge in Agora. I watched the movie conscious of present day parallels; I already mentioned inane fights we are having over evolution and global warming. And too many parents refuse to vaccinate their children for those diseases I mentioned above because of some vaguely defined fear about autism. As a result these diseases are making a comeback here, including measles, a disease once nearly eradicated in this country (but which kills something like 250,000 people a year in developing nations). Are we on the verge of another medieval period when we allow superstition and rumor to calcify our minds? Let’s hope not, because the human race can’t afford another thousand years of ignorance.
Update: For a good historical overview of Hypatia’s life and times go to Historian’s Notebook. It’s a great 3 part analysis of the movie’s accuracy.