Saturday, December 26, 2009


This movie looks as though it could be brilliant. It is a rendition of the story of Hypatia, an influential philosopher and mathematician who studied and taught at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt, near the end of the (Western) Roman Empire in the early fifth century. Ostensibly it seems to be about the concrete event, but it is much more than that.

(update: hat-tip goes to CiceroSC)

I haven't seen it myself (I will probably have to buy a copy from Amazon, it being highly unlikely to be shown out in the Australian bush), so I am going by the trailer and the bits and pieces I have picked up from the web, along with what I know about the history itself (note: Carl Sagan's relation of her story in Cosmos seems to be a tad off, according to some). Warning: spoiler for those who don't know the story.

Nominally the story is about the life and death of a highly educated woman, far ahead of her time, who had a hand in trying to prevent the fall of civilisation by way of protecting its scientific treasures and trying to maintain a separation of church and state. In the historical story, it was the latter in particular that was the proximate caused for her murder: the fundamentalists thought she was to blame for the Roman authorities not handing more power over to the Christian authorities. The Roman Empire by this time had long since made Christianity the official religion and had increasingly given it ever more lawful backing, and it seems that Orestes, the Roman Prefect of Alexandria was dragging his feet on this by intervening in the Church's prosecution of heretics and other faiths (and, truth be told, the men of these other faiths weren't exactly as pure as the driven snow either). Hypatia was blamed for influencing him in this regard, including with not unexpected accusations of sexual impropriety on the part of a woman who "didn't know her place."

The superficial can - and evidently already have - taken the movie to be an attack on Christianity as an end in itself. Indeed, since it is a European movie, I would not be at all surprised to find that its production will be interpreted by idiot US fundamentalists as an attack on US Christian culture by secular scientific European intellectuals. However, it is no such thing. It is intended to highlight the conflict of science and religion in general. It has nothing whatever to do with the state of the US, and is as concerned exclusively with Christianity as much as The Fountainhead is exclusively about a particular architect in New York. Similarly, despite being a movie based on history, it is as focussed exclusively on Hypatia as We The Living is focussed on Kira - and I suspect that WTL can be seen as depicting the principles of what life would be like for Hypatia were she much younger at the time civilisation fell and had lived a few years longer before dying while trying to flee to say scholarly communities in India.

If there is any group of the present world subtly having a finger pointed at it as a threat to civilisation then it is not Christianity in the US but Islam in Europe. But the director has denied this, explicitly stating that it is intended to be interpreted with contemporary events in mind, and that no one religion in particular is intended to be singled out:

"Once we started researching the film we recognised a lot of echoes with contemporary times and realised we could make a film about the present," he said. Some viewers have even likened the depiction of the members of the parabolani, an early-Christian brotherhood, to the modern Taliban. "It's true the parabolani [in the film] resemble a little bit the Taliban," said Amenabar. But it is not deliberate. Agora, which co-stars Max Minghella as Hypatia's slave Davus, gives all religions a hard time: Jews, Christians and pagans are all depicted as, at times, vengeful and violent, with Hypatia and her pupils representing the forces of reason.

I think that he can say that as much as he likes, and in the final analysis he would be entirely correct to note that religion as such is the problem, but I doubt very much if fundamentalist Islam in Europe is not a major concern to him personally - one can easily imagine why he'd be keen to distance himself from such interpretations. Nevertheless, it is not that he's simply using one to cover the other, for in reality the two issues are not separate: principles (the threat posed by those who have methods of thinking they hold as superior to reason) have no reality except through integration of concretes (specific creeds advocating this and representing specific threats to civilisation). He's clearly recognised that many viewers are going to draw the latter interpretation, and given events of the last ten years plus his express use of the word "contemporary" his protestations against identification with Islam are weak. That being said, one cannot identify the use of an Arab-looking actor with an Arab-sounding name to play the lead bad guy as evidence of a mere front for an attack on Islam as others have suggested - after all, it's set in Egypt, so of course there will have to be Arab-looking people having key roles. In actuality, though Samir does have Muslim parents of whom one is Egyptian, he is an Israeli and is apparently nicely cosmopolitan.

If there is any intended connection of the movie with Islam it will lie in a more educated interpretation and not a braindead assertion of Christianity-in-past=Islam-today lacking understanding of why the problem is a problem. Amenabar, as a proper artist should, expects the viewer to abstract both from the historicity of Christianity back then and Islam today, plus perhaps also from fundamentalist Jews in Israel and some of the outrages one occasionally hears about being perpetrated by fundamentalist Hindus, and the same again elsewhere in today and history, to do what he said he wanted to portray: recognise the principle of the threat to civilisation posed by unreason.


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