Agora (2009)

We are Such Star Stuff As Cinematic Dreams Are Made On

In the middle of “Who Speaks for Earth?,” the last episode of Cosmos (1979), which gets my vote for the greatest American television show of all time, Carl Sagan worries passionately about the threat of global thermonuclear war. After having explained the 20th century triumphs in astrophysics and molecular biology for twelve hours, Sagan turns his rhetorical attention to the desperate hope that we will not destroy a world capable of producing such glorious learning. To do so, he weaves a historical analogue, relating the story of Hypatia, purportedly the last steward of the Library of Alexandria.

In astonishingly cheesy green screen images, Sagan presents the grandeur of the library. “Science came of age in this library,” he argues. The framing of nuclear war as a threat to the archive of human knowledge resonates with Jacques Derrida’s essay, “No Apocalypse, Not Now.” In his 1984 piece, Derrida claims that the primary threat of nuclear war is to the literary archive. The notion that Derrida and Sagan are fellow travelers in the battle against nuclear war is nearly shocking. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan lambastes the “anti-science” of postmodernist philosophers for being relativist thinkers, Derrida being most appropriately labeled with this insult.

In this, one of the most compelling moments I’ve ever seen on a television screen, Sagan hits hard, calling to action his fellow scientists, arguing against racism, a project Derridean in its nature: “There is no record, in the entire history of the Library that any of its illustrious scientists and scholars ever seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not.”

Sagan builds an argument for democratic Enlightenment science, and against exclusionary religious fundamentalism. He implies that because science was not taught to the masses, “When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them.” Sagan links the critique of fundamentalism to Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, who he implies hated Hypatia because she believed in science: “In the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishoners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten.” Sagan saves the greatest irony for last: “Cyril was made a saint.”

Even moreso than most historical figures, the life of a woman scientist in the last days of the Roman Empire is very little documented. The actual details of Hypatia’s last days are unknown. Sagan extrapolates from very little evidence. Hypatia’s story has been reconstructed from two divergent accounts: one by Socrates Scholasticus, and the other by John of Nikiu. Because John’s account justifies Hypatia’s murder for her status as a witch—“she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles”—historians were left with very little to go on. The Enlightenment, a triumph of science over religious obfuscation—clearly established in the Church’s treatment of Galileo during the Renaissance—forwarded Hypatia as the hero found in Sagan. The title of John Toland’s 18th century essay extends the argument for Hypatia into a direct opposite of John of Nikiu’s nonsense, it is hagiography run amok: “Hypatia, or the history of a most beautiful, most virtuous, most learned, and every way accomplished lady, who was torn to pieces by the clergy of Alexandria, to gratify the pride, emulation, and cruelty of their archbishop, commonly but undeservedly styled St. Cyril.”

A more balanced, but certainly not a Catholic apology, is to be found in Edward Gibbon’s monumental, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published, in of all years, 1776!). Also an Enlightenment figure, Gibbon’s project was to foreground the need for rational secularism to replace organized religion, a concept I will return to shortly. It is clear, however, that Gibbon is the best source we have, and very reasoned approaches to Hypatia stem from his work. One might claim that an astrophysicist like Sagan has no business engaging in historical analysis. And yet, one of our best Renaissance literary critics replicates via Gibbon almost the entirety of Sagan’s argument. In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Steven Greenblatt positions Hypatia as the hero of mathematical and scientific learning over the bellicose Christians. He laments the murder of the “immensely learned Hypatia” (91), and relates the end using the exact irony employed by Sagan: “The mob then dragged her corpse outside the city walls and burned it. Their hero Cyril was eventually made a saint” (92-3).

I belabor the historiography of Hypatia’s story because it becomes crucial for understanding the Christian critique of a fabulous film, Agora (2009), the epic narrative version of Carl Sagan’s green screen television show. In his hysterical review, “The Dangerous Silliness of the new movie Agora,” Father Robert Barron labels both Sagan and the filmmaker, Alejandro Amenabar as “anti-religious ideologues.” He argues that “We Christians have to resist—and keep setting the record straight,” a worry driven by the film’s staunch belief that secular rationalism ought to triumph over religious zealotry. For reasons that seem obvious to me, Agora presses Hypatia into service for a different analogous purpose than Sagan did thirty years before.

Sagan laments, “The loss [at the Library] was incalculable.” As Albinoni’s heart-wrenching Adagio plays on the soundtrack, Sagan melodramatically states his thesis argument: “We must not let it happen again.” That is, we must not let the Cold War lead to the destruction of our archive, scientific and otherwise. Amenabar’s film implies that it IS most certainly happening again. In the United States, we live in a culture where about 30% of the population finds the fact of evolution to be so threatening that it cannot be taught in our public schools. Closer to home for the Spanish filmmaker Amenabar, the lunatic Muslim fundamentalists are waging a war of their own against the Enlightenment. Cyril in this film, played by Sami Samir, is the most Muslim Christian I have ever seen in a movie.

Father Barron objects to one scene in particular which I think is part of the great aesthetic achievement of Agora: “Amenabar brings his camera up to a very high point of vantage overlooking the Alexandria library while it is being ransacked by the Christian mob. From this perspective, the Christians look for all the world like scurrying cockroaches.” This is an accurate description of the sequence, but it misses entirely—I think quite deliberately—the significance of the scene for the film’s argument. Amenabar time and again lifts his camera off of the playing field of the petty actors, choosing instead to look at our planet from outer space. In this sense, he shares the perspective of Sagan before him.

And yet, if it is possible, Agora revisits Carl Sagan’s story of Hypatia from an even wider angle. The aesthetics of Amenabar’s film relies on a particular strategy that refuses to participate in the material horrors of human realities. Many times throughout the film, Amenabar’s camera leaves the plane of the drama and zooms upward, ending in a satellite shot of the earth. For example, to use a more productive example than Father Barron’s, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) comes to speak to Alexandria’s prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) at his palace. Hypatia says Orestes should arrest Cyril, who is calling for the execution of Jewish women and children. The city’s leaders explain that Orestes cannot defend the Jews because half of the city will rise up in opposition to his government. “How naïve of me to finally think we’ve changed,” laments Orestes. Amenabar cuts to a panning camera that eventually settles in an extreme long shot of the lonely Earth and its moon next to it.

At the beginning of the film, Hypatia declares, “If there were no center, the universe would be shapeless.” This opening metaphor of a political world without a center—capable of being fixed only by a scientific understanding of the way the world really works—is tragically lamented at the film’s ending. Using an attack on Hypatia to hurt Orestes, Cyril’s Christians bring her back to the Library at Alexandria for the first time in decades. Where the learned scrolls of ancient Greece used to be read by the world’s cosmopolitan thinkers is now present a Christian altar. In front of it, the monks strip her naked, “So that God can behold you in all your filth, whore.”

They decide to stone the philosopher they purportedly mistake for a witch. Her former slave, secretly in love with her, Davus (Max Minghella) holds Hypatia as the men go looking for stones. Amenabar cuts to a high angle extreme long shot at Davus holding the naked, vulnerable Hypatia. He looks at her, and nods. She nods back. Davus suffocates her with his hands so that she will not feel the pain of the stoning. The film flashes back to shots of their tender times together, for example when Davus secretly held her foot while she was sleeping. As she dies, Hypatia looks up at the hole in the library’s roof through which she used to admire the stars. She sees the circle in the roof from an angle, and thus her dying image is of an ellipse.

The film allegorizes its politics via a beautiful array of geometric shapes. In particular, Hypatia’s solution to the problem of the geocentric, circle-based Ptolemaic theory of the solar system relies on the shift away from the perfection of the circle toward the mathematics of the ellipse. A mathematician who specialized in the four curves derived from a cone (circle, ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola), the film posits that Hypatia solved the problem just before she was murdered by Cyril’s men. Shortly before she is accosted on the street, Hypatia explains to her slave that the solar system is heliocentric, with the sun as one focus of an ellipse. The film’s Hypatia has brilliantly discovered the secret to the movement of the planets in the solar system, 1,200 years before Kepler’s actual discovery. In Derridean terms, Hypatia herself is the archive destroyed by Cyril’s Christians. The is the beautiful geometry of Agora, a film which celebrates the triumph of human reason over barbarity, in a different aesthetic register than Carl Sagan, but certainly as his fellow traveler.

As Hypatia collapses, Davus lies: “She fainted.” The Christians care little, and throw rocks at her limp, lifeless body, to satisfy their blood lust. Davus stumbles away. We see him from a reverse angle of Hypatia’s dying vision. It is the hole in the library roof again, but now returned to a circle from a direct view above. Now that Hypatia has been murdered, the secret of the ellipse has been lost for another 1,200 years. Amenabar’s camera zooms back upward into the sky. We see Alexandria, then the strip of land surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, then all of Africa, and finally the whole Earth. The camera tracks downward away from the planet, so that we now just see the stars alone, upon which the end credits roll over relative blackness.

With this aesthetic practice of the reverse zoom off of the surface of the planet, Amenabar first links to his primary source, the media work of Carl Sagan. Robert Zemeckis’ film version of Contact, based on a novel by Sagan, begins with a cosmic zoom, leaving the Earth with its radio and television signals, traveling outward to the edges of the Universe. However, these zooms away from the Earth in Agora also link to a far more sophisticated tradition in film history, and certainly signify more than treating Christians as cockroaches. Amenabar links his film to the greatest mise-en-scene filmmaker in the history of cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi.

For example, in Ugetsu (1953), Mizoguchi documents human barbarity only to move the camera as far away as it will go from such horror. Ohama, a woman abandoned by her husband, who dreams of becoming a samurai, is cornered in a temple by rogue soldiers. As the soldiers rape Ohama, Mizoguchi’s camera cranes off of the floor, looking down on the human barbarity with cold contempt. The intertextual connection between Amenabar and Mizoguchi indicates that this trope of presentation transcends a particular religious critique: Japanese Shinto and Middle-eastern Christianity are not the issue. Instead, it is the cinema’s ability to stand for human, materialist values foregrounding how decent people treat each other in their quest to discover how the world actually works. From Hypatia to Mizoguchi to Sagan to Amenbar, there are those of us who we celebrate for having enlightened the world, and they are the star stuff that really matters.

– Walter Metz