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Review of Agora

Author(s): 
Shirley Gray (California State University, Los Angeles)

Agora, motion picture directed by Alejandro Amenábar, written by Amenábar and Mateo Gil; MPAA unrated; 2 hours, 6 minutes; released in US, 2010; Newmarket Films, http://www.agorathemovie.com/

A woman in mathematics has risen to the level of having the movie industry tell a story of her life in film. In the style of the great C. B. DeMille epic classics, Hypatia is now brought before the world in an elaborate production centered on life in the Museum at Alexandria, Egypt, ca. 400 AD. Those of us who have been lucky enough to travel to Egypt will immediately be reminded of temples at Karnak and Edfu. Statues of Horus and colors reminiscent of the Temple of Seti in the Valley of the Kings add visual appeal. The expensive and elaborate sets were a background for crowd scenes with hundreds of extras. With such flair, the film became last year’s highest grossing production in Spain and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

A general liberal arts education is needed to appreciate the finer details that historians often indicate were the events marking the decline of Roman rule and the emergence of Christianity. Certainly, the scenes depicted in the movie were a turning point in the history of civilization surrounding the Mediterranean. Is the movie accurate? For the most part, yes. Those of us who teach history of mathematics recognize Hypatia as the first woman we know by name in our field. Her life and the pillaging of the Museum at Alexandria continue to have great symbolic significance. Those of us teaching survey courses often use her death to usher in the Dark Ages and then quickly leap forward in time to the Moors crossing into Spain taking the surviving salvaged scrolls from the Museum. Copies of these scrolls were, and continue to be, our best record of the mathematical achievements bequeathed from the ancient Greeks.

Hypatia was known to be a great orator, teacher and translator. To this viewer, too much screentime was devoted to her struggle to understand the discrepancies between the theories of Ptolemy and Aristarchus. While beautiful wooden models of the conic sections were presented, there is no mention of Diophantus’ name or Hypatia’s translation of Arithmetica. As a later copy of Arithmetica is central to the history of Fermat’s Last Theorem, the screenplay missed a great opportunity to connect to a wider math and science audience.

My deepest concern with the film itself is the way the material was edited. The story reaches its primary emotional highpoint near the start of the film. In unforgettable scenes, a charismatic religious zealot turns a bedraggled group in the agora (marketplace or public square) into raging protesters. He uses fire walking, chicanery and oratory. I would have preferred the highest dramatic impact to have been Hypatia’ s death at the end of the film. Historians of mathematics know this to be one of the most graphic descriptions we have as a legacy of the struggles between science and ideology. (As a parallel example, Galileo’s trial has been presented many times on the stage and in literature with strong impact.) However, the film ends using a love triangle (fictional?) involving a former student, who becomes a political leader opposed by one of Hypatia’s personal slaves who had become a religious extremist. The three represent the conflicts of greater Alexandria, and even the Roman Empire at that time, and result in her famous execution. Thus, the ruling Roman government was faced with the emergence of Christians, now in the majority, at war with Hypatia and the Museum.

My women students have always lamented the fact that Hypatia was in a position of power because her father, Theon, was head of the Museum. She is portrayed on screen as a teacher of a small group of male students. Sources have indicated she was a terrific orator and teacher. Never is she portrayed as delivering a moving speech that would focus on her personally as being the opponent of a rebellious group of Christians. She is portrayed instead as a beautiful, but lonely victim preoccupied with understanding the universe, almost a stereotypical absent minded mathematics professor, rather than a heroic leader of free speech and learning.

Thus, the film ended with my audience on the West Side of Los Angeles, composed largely of people working in “the business,” leaving the theatre in complete silence. Most had come to see a film that had just arrived from Cannes. The only voice I heard was a depressed whisper. Will I tell my students to see the film? Not likely, but I will certainly mention the film, especially to women students. I doubt if I ever place it on reserve in the library.

Shirley Gray (California State University, Los Angeles), "Review of [i]Agora[/i]," Loci (November 2010), DOI:10.4169/loci003496

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