Science, the stars and the rise of state religion

2010-08-30 00:00

AS the fourth century after the birth of Christ draws to a close, the old certainties of the Roman world are crumbling, with the new religion of Christianity rising to assert itself and a rigid social order cracking around the ed­ges.

In Roman Egypt, Alexandria was a beacon of learning, site of the famed library that collected the wisdom of the ancients. Here, a female mathematician, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), lectures to young men on the mysteries of the cosmos. And mysteries they are — how do the planets wander through the heavens, what keeps our feet planted on the earth?

She is the desired object of two young men, one her privileged student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and the other, her body slave, Davus (Max Minghella). Hers is an unusual position — a woman treated as an equal by scholars, but not if she’s a man’s possession.

Inside the library, all is calm speculation, even religious conflict is kept civil, but outside, in the agora (marketplace), the old deities are mocked by the rising new Christianity, which appeals to outsiders, not least, slaves.

In the world of film, all this comes to a head in an attack by Christians on the library as a symbol of the old order and old religion, as Hypatia scrambles to save the scrolls of ancient learning.

Amid the hub-bub, Davus breaks free and almost masters Hypatia, but at the last moment, he masters himself; she releases him from bondage and he joins the Christians as they begin to assert their ascendency.The elite see the way the world is turning, and Christianity supplants the old religion. Of course, it is not yet the systematic set of dogmas it later becomes, but a radical reimagining of the world. Not one with a lot of room for a questioning woman interested in how the cosmos operates. As Orestes rises to secular power and Davus becomes a monastic religious enforcer, Hypatia attempts to continue her speculations unhindered.

Weisz is physically well cast, she looks just like a Roman woman in a mosaic, face a perfect calm oval. As Davus, Minghella has to go from effacing boy trying to keep his passions hidden — treated as if he isn’t really there (holding a towel for Hypatia to step into from her bath, unblinking as she tells her students that brawling is “for slaves”) — to a tough adult with the courage to perform the film’s final act.

A film like Agora is hard to pin down, a biography of someone so far from our own world that we scarcely know where to place her. It is more than a story about a shadowy person from the ancient world. It’s about the clash of ideas, the rise of one orthodoxy over another, the moment that a radical new worldview begins to coalesce into a state religion. And how faith can obscure the world. Hypatia, the film asserts, realised the great mathematical truth behind the movement of the heavenly bodies, knowledge that was then lost behind dogma for 1 200 years.

Filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar doesn’t favour the simple: he previously made The Sea Inside (about one man’s fight to be allowed to die) and the baffling, dreamy horror film The Others. Unfortunately, portraying a clash of ideas isn’t inherently cinematic, so he has to give as a clash, of sticks and stones and knives, battle scenes must stand in for what in reality was years, perhaps decades, of debate and a bit of blood. But that’s the movies. Agora remains interesting, even if it’s not going to set the box­office on fire.

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