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Your Ladybits Got in my Science: Agora, The Tiger Beatdown Review

I am a geek. You may have figured this out–I mean, I drop casual references to Cthulu in my posts here, I have detailed literary criticism of both The Lord of the Rings AND the Star Wars prequels prepared to be ranted upon the poor unfortunate who engages me in conversation about either, even if it’s just “Who’s hotter, Aragon or the young Obi-Wan?”

Oh yes, I am geeky, though in that literary-pop science-y-read too much science fiction as a young person of surprising gender way, not the building computers from scratch-having and using a ham radio sort of way. (There are an uncommon number of both, and people who are both, in the trans community for reasons perhaps beyond the ability of science to explain.)

Agora, the new movie by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, is about a geek who was Greek–Hypatia of Alexandria. And it may just be the kind of movie only a geeky feminist can love. But I sure hope not.

Some of you may, of course, have heard about Hypatia before:

Hypatia place setting from Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party"

Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party"

Or maybe from here:

An image of the first issue of the journal Hypatia

Or, you know, even here:

I’m not including that last bit because I grew up watching Cosmos (or because wow, was Carl Sagan sexy or what, in that geeky brainy way I’m susceptible to?), but because it turns out it was the actual inspiration for the movie.

Agora is divided into two parts. First, we meet Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia teaching her class on natural history and astronomy in the midst of a late Roman Empire Alexandria boiling over with religious and social tensions. The daughter of Theon, the head of the famous Library, Hypatia is an astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician in her own right. Her students are besotted with her (she rejects one in a most, um, biological and archaeologically-sourced manner), but also respect her as a teacher and a scientist. Later, after the destruction of the Library, she struggles to continue her research as religious and political forces close in on her and fanaticism takes over the city.

Let me talk a bit about the look of the movie, because I am also a geek about period historical details. It’s sumptuous, and accurate–the movie deftly captures the look of Alexandria, the sun-baked port town that fused all the great traditions of the Classical world together–the bizarre mix of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman architecture, dress, and social customs is beautifully rendered. Rachel Weisz isn’t wearing any makeup, or at least looks like she isn’t, which is just as good. Even the word planet is consistently spoken as Wanderer, the literal Greek (they all would have been speaking Greek) meaning of the word.

More than that, the movie captures the social makeup of the late Roman world in broad but indelible strokes. Hypatia shows concern and compassion for her slave, Davus (who pines after her), but cannot see past their relationship as owner and property; the city’s pagans have been reduced to a comfortable elite completely out of touch with the reality of the city’s populace; and the Christians are depicted as the outsiders, the non-Greeks, the slaves and poor and downtrodden suddenly awakening to power under the influence of the first religion to tell them that a slave could be as good as a rich man in the eyes of God–as well as the new social order where the Christian emperors have suddenly turned the old ways upside down.

It’s a story with few heroes, where no one comes out pure. The pagans stand for a repressive, elitist regime; the Christians move to overturn that order but lash out at learning and culture in their zeal to eradicate the old ways; the Jews of Alexandria, it sadly goes without saying, get the worst of it from both sides. But most of all, the movie is about the battle of certainty versus skepticism, of radical faith against radical questioning.

So of course it’s a feminist movie.

And I don’t mean in the way that any movie about a woman that doesn’t make her merely an adjunct for the lives of men is “feminist”; and not even because it shows a woman utterly unconcerned about the men in her life and who could move at the highest ranks of society. Agora is a feminist movie because it reminds us that questioning things, of always doubting The Way Things Are, of even doubting what you have been told is what must be, is a feminist act. Rejecting conversion to Christianity (and the subsequent suppression of her teaching and research), Hypatia tells her former student, now the Roman prefect, “I must always question my beliefs,” and nothing is more feminist than constantly examining your own preconceptions.

Agora does all this basically by spending two hours looking for an ellipse.

Maybe that’s why the reviews have been so mixed, even though I’ll admit the movie is not without flaws–the dialog can be a bit ponderous at times, and the central action boils down to Hypatia trying to figure the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. (The answer is that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, not the perfect circle her philosophy told her to expect.) The Ptolemaic Earth-centered model, needlessly complicated and not truly examining the observable evidence becomes a metaphor for the social and religious conflicts of the movie.

But Agora is also a movie about being smart, about being delighted to be wrong if it means you’ve learned something you hadn’t expected, of being able to be engrossed in the search for knowledge even in the most extreme conditions–Hypatia, besieged with her students in the Library by the Christians, ponders not death or starvation, but starts a conversation about the heliocentric model of the universe.

Agora is also secular myth-making, of course, a parable for secularists and rationalists. There’s no evidence that Hypatia ever examined the heliocentric model–she was the editor of the standard edition of Ptolemy’s works, for goodness’ sake–although she was a brilliant mathematician and had the theory to be able to figure it out. The whole story of the destruction of the library itself (Sagan’s summary is pretty wrong in most details) is complicated and shrouded in myth and distortion. (This Straight Dope column does a good job of laying out the few facts as we know them.) Even so, it doesn’t deserve the level of mansplaining shown below (and please excuse the length of the quote, but it has to be read to be believed):

I do sometimes wish the poor woman’s memory could be left in peace. She’s been the victim of such sordidly sentimental nonsense over the past few centuries that it’s almost impossible to appreciate her for what she was, or to disentangle the tragedy of her death from the ideological rants that typically surround its telling.

She was, all the evidence suggests, a brilliant lecturer in Platonic thought, a trained scientist, and the author of a few mathematical commentaries. Despite the extravagant claims often made on her behalf, however, there is no reason to believe she made any particularly significant contributions to any of her fields of expertise.

She was not, for instance—as she has often been said to have been—the inventor of either the astrolabe or the hydrometer. It is true that the first extant mention of a hydrometer appears in a letter written to Hypatia by her devoted friend, Synesius of Cyrene, the Christian Platonist and bishop of Ptolemais; but that is because Synesius, in that letter, is explaining to her how the device is made, so that she can arrange to have one assembled for him

At the time of her death, she was probably not even the beautiful young woman of lore; she was in all likelihood over sixty.

She was, however, brutally murdered—and then dismembered—by a gang of Christian parabalani (a fraternity originally founded to care for the city’s poor); that much is true. This was not, however, because she was a woman (female intellectuals were not at all uncommon in the Eastern Empire, among either pagans or Christians), or because she was a scientist and philosopher (the scientific and philosophical class of Alexandria comprised pagans, Jews, and Christians, and there was no popular Christian prejudice against science or philosophy).

And it was certainly not because she was perceived as an enemy of the Christian faith; she got on quite well with the educated Christians of Alexandria, numbered many among her friends and students, and was intellectually far closer to them than to the temple cultists of the lower city; and the frankest account of her murder was written by the Christian historian Socrates, who obviously admired her immensely. It seems likely that she died simply because she became inadvertently involved in a vicious political squabble between the city’s imperial prefect and the city’s patriarch, and some of the savages of the lower city decided to take matters into their own hands.

That is why Agora is a feminist movie. Because even seventeen centuries after her death, she must still be the subject of all the standard, well-worn attacks on any woman, ever, anywhere in the world: what she did wasn’t really important. She was old. She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t killed/silenced/raped/brutalized/overlooked/ignored/mocked/forgotten because she was a woman, but because of the men she hung out with. Or something. And it wasn’t us, the good men, the smart men, the cosmopolitan men who are in charge, who killed her–it was those brutes, the exceptions, the wrong ones. It wasn’t our repressive philosophy/religion/social order/scriptures (just ignore the fact that the movie directly quotes the Apostle Paul’s brutally misogynistic letter to Timothy [1 Timothy 2:9-14]); it was always just the actions of a few. We would never do such a thing.

We would just defend the social order that allows it to happen.

Hypatia of Alexandria is long-gone; she belongs to the ages, and we know so little about her that anything we say will be spoiled by myth and our own preconceptions. But in this day of backlash, of retrenchment, when all too often the answers to any kind of social freedom–for gays, for trans people, for women, for the poor, the downtrodden, the bombed, the wretched–is that things are the Way They Should Be, that the universe is governed by a Just-So story, then we could do worse to make a myth of our own, of a shining light of reason, of the possibility that things can be changed and understood. And you could do a lot worse than to adopt Agora as that myth.

28 Comments

  1. Melusin wrote:

    C.L., I love this review and very much want to see this movie. I really appreciated your points about the necessity of having our own myths.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  2. GarlandGrey wrote:

    That bit of Catholic apologetics was really condescending, and the subtext of it is something I’ve noticed while reading history lately: “Since time immemorable, Women have always been alright because they’ve always had men protecting them.” With the unstated understanding that things didn’t start getting bad for women until the 50′s, when feminism was created to lure them into witchcraft and lesbianism.

    Oh, and young Obi-Wan. Forever.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Melissa wrote:

    I really did read and enjoy the whole post, but I just had to say they “young person of surprising gender” is my new favorite phrase.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Gembird wrote:

    This was great, thank you. I’m a total science geek as well as a feminist and it’s always good to see things written about Hypatia. Well, except people like that mansplainy person you quoted.

    But anyway, yes, AWESOME.

    P.S. Seconding young Obi-Wan.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Victoria wrote:

    Finally, a movie I actually want to watch.

    And young Obi-Wan. No question.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Rachel_in_WY wrote:

    Oh good! I’ve read about the movie and want to see it, but I’m always afraid movies like this will be disappointing, so I’m glad to know it’s good.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  7. Chris wrote:

    Hot damn, this post is awesome! Especially those last two paragraphs. I really want to see this movie now.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  8. Caro wrote:

    she got on quite well with the educated Christians of Alexandria, numbered many among her friends and students

    Isn’t that a beautiful (and by beautiful I mean infuriating) example of the “but some of my best friends are x/y/z…” defense operating in reverse.

    I was already annoyed to have missed it in the cinema, this review makes me even more determined to track a copy down ASAP.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  9. Renee wrote:

    Never heard of Hypatia before. She sounds like an awesome lady. Can’t wait to see this movie, although I’ll probably have to wait for it to come out on Netflix because my city doesn’t get all the cool movies :(

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  10. katiemonstrrr wrote:

    Hypatia is one of my absolute favorite Ladies in History! I was so excited when I heard a movie was being made about her, but was rather disappointed by the trailer I saw, and decided not to bother watching it after all. Your review has rekindled my initial excitement to see Agora, so thank you C.L.!

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  11. Christina wrote:

    I don’t know much about Hypatia so thanks for the great intro.

    And ditto w/ Chris- those last two paragraphs were awesome!

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  12. Dawn. wrote:

    I’d read very little about Hypatia before, and had never heard of Agora, but this fabulous review just made me a Hypatia fan and a near-future Agora viewer.

    That mansplaining was so nauseating. The typical douchebag ramblings of a man who’s determined to delegitimize any woman who crosses his path. It’s like they’re just too happy to do it; bullshit just rolls off their tongue.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  13. Erin wrote:

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree with all of you. Aragon is hotter.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  14. Erik wrote:

    “(The answer is that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, not the perfect circle her philosophy told her to expect.)”

    Hey! No spoilers!

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 11:50 pm | Permalink
  15. Koré wrote:

    I’d read some (spanish) critiques of this movie, and first I only saw the “that’s what happens when a director gets a lot of money and doesn’t know what to do with it”, but now I’ve searched and I see they are also accusing it of being presumptuous and maniqueistic, of being too PC and too in sync with the ideas of the socialist spanish government right now. So, thanks to your post now I’ll see it :)

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink
  16. Bookewyrme wrote:

    I know I’m going to get crucified for this, but oh well, here goes.

    That “mansplainy” quote you put in there was the most historically accurate part of this article. Hypatia WAS on good terms with intellectual christians, she DID get murdered because she got between two powerful political figures (and yes, also because she was a woman getting between powerful political figures) and she WAS old by the time she died. Whether she was beautiful or not anymore is impossible to tell. I like to think she still was. And there have been a god-awful lot of myths surrounding her. I love Hypatia, I think she’s a fascinating woman. But she is hardly the first woman in Egypt, or even the first Greek woman to have been highly educated and independent. She was just the one that got murdered by a bunch of guys who happened to be christians.

    I guess I can’t buy into the whole “Hypatia Myth” idea because I’m too much of a picky historian. I want to know what happened, and if we don’t KNOW I want to know that too. The movie does sound interesting though, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it.
    Anyway, thanks for getting my brain going this morning C.L. :)
    ~Lia

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  17. benvolio wrote:

    It would make me happy if you spelled it ‘Cthulhu’.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  18. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Brookwyrme: Crucified! Ha, I get it!

    I agree that the quote was pretty accurate, historically, which does not invalidate the criticism I was making of it–that it used the same infuriating set of tropes used to criticize women since, well, before Hypatia’s time. It’s one thing to point out, say, that Rachel Weisz wasn’t a great casting choice because Hypatia was actually a lot older when she died; it’s quite another to do so along with mention that this meant she was no longer pretty. The quote infuriated me not because it punctured my precious Hypatia myth–I’m not particularly wedded to one, and while I liked Agora, I understand the historical inaccuracies; not knowing them would be dishonest of me. I hated that quote because of the sickening condescension, along with its own attempts to distort the historical record to protect “Saint” Cyril’s reputation.

    @Benvolio: I’m Cthul-agnostic, but thanks for the correction :)

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  19. FLJustice wrote:

    A very thoughtful review. I was first introduced to Hypatia through the Dinner Party in 1980 and have studied her life and times ever since. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. You’re right in pointing out that 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.

    There’s a lot of myth making around Hypatia’s life. 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). She dissects the literary tradition and looks at what the primary sources have to say. I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com) – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

    Oh, and Aragon all the way!

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  20. Aoede wrote:

    For some reason I recall having read that she considered women inferior and herself to be some sort of exceptional being above womanhood. Mama Wiki isn’t giving, though, and I admit to being a lazy bum and not looking harder for proof/disproof. (Disprov…ation?)

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  21. Seraph wrote:

    Point a: Aragon.

    Point b: I had to do a project on Hypatia for my math class in 8th grade, so naturally I nearly fainted with glee upon hearing about Agora–then promptly forgot it, and am again filled with glee at this review.

    The project I had to do involved a bunch of research (it was a very difficult topic for an 8th grader to research!) followed by writing a children’s book about her life. The best part was a drawing I got my dad to draw for me, actually, of Cyrus being really hilariously angry in the style of a Byzantine icon.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink
  22. Nomie wrote:

    I’d already received a positive review of this movie from one of my friends from grad school, where we were in the classics department together; this post makes me want to see Agora EVEN MORE. I suppose I will have to wait for the dvd, since it doesn’t look like it’s coming to our arthouse theater any time soon.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  23. Sixwing wrote:

    … now I have to go see a movie. Splaination just makes me want to go see it more.

    Also, Aragorn likewhoa.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  24. Sadie wrote:

    Movie places around the world are going to be confused as to why they suddenly can’t keep this movie on the shelves. But we’ll know it’s because of the lovely writing of C.L. Minou. I, too, must watch this movie soon.

    Aragorn for me, too. (What do y’all have against the second “r” in his name? :-P )

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  25. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Sadie: Because, like many writers, I CANOT SPEELL. And I think you overestimate my pull with the movie-going public (hey! Did I mention that Dr. Morbius now does movie reviews on the home blog? I didn’t? You should go! :D

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  26. cwm wrote:

    I heard of this and got excited and wanted to see it and went to Netflix to put it in my queue. This is the description I saw:

    “As Christianity gains steam in Roman Egypt toward the end of the fourth century A.D., a young slave (Max Minghella) weighs his desire for freedom against his growing love for his mistress (Rachel Weisz), an atheist as well as a professor of philosophy. Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) directs this epic drama based on the life of Hypatia of Alexandria, a noted Greek scholar and mathematician. Rupert Evans co-stars.”

    WTF C.L. WHY ARE YOU LYING TO US? CLEARLY THE SLAVE MAN IS THE MAIN CHARACTER. NETFLIX SAID SO.

    I wonder how many people got this movie and then were surprised that Hypatia was a woman.

    Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  27. cwm wrote:

    Also it’s not on DVD yet even though it was released in 2009 (?). So probably nobody got the movie and was surprised. But still.

    Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  28. Tim Liebe wrote:

    I first heard of Hypatia thanks to a brief, chilling mention of how she died in Eric Flint’s and David’s Drake’s alternate history DESTINY’S SHIELD. Flint later co-wrote a series of novels with Mercedes Lackey and David Freer set in an alternate Venice in the early 16th Century – where the “break point” is Hypatia saving the Alexandria Library from destruction and converting to Christianity, then converting Christianity itself to fit her better!

    I’m looking forward to seeing this movie – probably on DVD, since I doubt it’s going to show at any local theatres here in the hinterlands….

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

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  1. [...] I am pleased as punch that Doc got around to this, because I really wanted to hear her reaction to it. For more on Agora–from a feminist critical point of view (surprise!) check out my Tiger Beatdown review. [...]