Agora

2010-07-03

in Films and movies, Rants

I saw Agora yesterday, and found very little in it that was redeeming. The film depicts the mathematical work of Hypatia, set against a background of religious violence between pagans, Christians, and Jews. The great majority of the film consisted of angry young male religious fanatics, killing another for reasons that were never very well established. All the dialog was excessively melodramatic and unconvincing, and the motivations of all the characters remained obscure.

Given the span of time and the number of characters included in the film, it feels a bit as though they took a trilogy worth of material and crammed it into one film by removing everything that wasn’t a critical plot point. Imagine The Lord of The Rings compressed into two hours by removing everything except key plot points; this film has that kind of pacing. As a result, the film feels like a series of climaxes with no lead-up to give them context or follow-through to show their consequences.

The mathematical sub-plot contrasted aesthetically with all the background violence, but also felt unconvincing and unnatural. Rather than being given any appreciation for why people care so much about the mathematical questions, or what solving them might mean, we are treated to an epistemology reminiscent of Dead Poets Society or an episode of House: all sound bites and sudden insights, with little sense of what makes the knowledge significant.

Not recommended.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Hypatia has long been pressed into service as a martyr for science by those with agendas that have nothing to do with the accurate presentation of history. As Maria Dzielska has detailed in her study of Hypatia in history and myth,Hypatia of Alexandria,virtually every age since her death that has heard her story has appropriated it and forced it to serve some polemical purpose.

To begin with, the actual Great Library of Alexandria no longer existed in Hypatia’s time. Precisely when and how it had been destroyed is unclear, though a fire in Alexandria caused by Julius Caesar’s troops in 48 BC is the most likely main culprit. More likely this and/or other fires were part of a long process of decline and degradation of the collection. Given that we know so little about it, the Great Library has long been a focus of some highly imaginative fantasies. The idea that it contained 500,000 books is often repeated uncritically by many modern writers, even though comparison with the size other ancient libraries and estimates of the size of the building needed to house such a collection makes this highly unlikely. It is rather more likely that it was less than a tenth of this number, though that would still make it the largest library in the ancient world by a wide margin.

The idea that the Great Library was still in existence in Hypatia’s time and that it was, like her, destroyed by a Christian mob has been popularised by Gibbon, who never let history get in the way of a good swipe at Christianity. But what Gibbon was talking about was the temple known as the Serapeum, which was not the Great Library at all. It seems the Serapeum had contained a library at some point and was possibly a “daughter library” of the former Great Library. But the problem with Gibbon’s version is that no account of the destruction of the Serapeum by the Bishop Theophilus in AD 391 makes any mention of a library or any books, only the destruction of pagan idols and cult objects”

Pearl July 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Good to get these perspectives. the movie sounded like it could be interesting but was trying to rewrite history and prop the idea of a women as hero with lots of explosions and carnage to please and allay those that might bother otherwise.

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