agora

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]

Thanks, bas­tards.

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