While we’re at it, Alejandro Amenábar’s 2009 movie Agora is pretty great. It was dismaying how late and how little distribution it got in the US, one suspects because of its anti-religiosity. While seemingly getting screen time only in a couple of “alternative” Landmark Theatres in the US (yay Landmark!), it became the highest-grossing film of 2009 in Spain within 4 days of its release there– despite being originally English-language.
Amenábar is the brilliant young Spanish director of Open Your Eyes (1997), The Others (2001), and The Sea Inside (2004), all excellent movies that got a good deal more attention in the US. Agora reconstructs the story of Hypatia, the first famous female mathematician and head of the Platonist school in Alexandria around 400AD. She’s played by the very appealing Rachel Weisz. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just leave it at this: the religious mob sucks.
No, I can’t leave it there. Spoilers follow.
There are certain moments in this movie that are almost impossible to bear. One is the sacking (one of several, historically) of the Library of Alexandria. The use of the camera in this sequence is exquisite, evoking the movements of mindless ants as the mob gathers and burns scrolls, and the topsy-turvy inversion of the order of the world with an upside-down shot of a rider on horseback in the library.
The most difficult thing to watch, though, is the martyrdom of Hypatia, described this way by Socrates of Constantinople:
…as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. [source]
The movie softens the murder just a touch by changing it into a stoning. John of Nikiû’s later description (7th century) prefigures the witch burnings of the Early Modern:
AND IN THOSE DAYS there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. […] And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate– now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ– and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him “the new Theophilus”; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city. [source]