Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Movie: Agora

We say this yesterday at the Main Art theater in Royal Oak. Royal Oak is the hippest of Detroit's many suburbs, a sort of cross between Rush Street in Chicago and Ann Arbor. It is worth an occasional trip outside the Ann Arbor bubble.

This movie raises the question of whether the cause of reason (or science, or feminism, you can have your pick) justifies lying about history. The director (who co-authored the script) wants to tell a moral story about bad fundamentalists and the trouble they cause. In so doing, though, he apparently distorts the history to serve his political goals. Here is a snippet from an excellent blog post on the history:
Over and over again, elements are added to the story that are not in the source material: the destruction of the library, the stoning of the Jews in the theatre, Cyril condemning Hypatia's teaching because she is a woman, the heliocentric "breakthrough" and Hypatia's supposed irreligiousity. And each of these invented elements serves to emphasise the idea that she was a freethinking innovator who was murdered because her learning threatened fundamentalist bigots. The fact that Amenábar [the director] needs to rest this emphasis on things he has made up and mixed into the real story demonstrates how baseless this interpretation is.
I think the answer to the question raised by the movie is "no", so I found it irritating and preachy. A.O. Scott at the NYT, apparently part of the choir being preached to, is much kinder and seems to have appreciated the sermon.

I am no fan of fundamentalisms of any sort, and that includes the fundamentalist versions of atheism and secularism. I am very much a fan of getting the history right as history has much to teach us, most notably that things are rarely as morally obvious as this movie makes them out to be.

Addendum: if anyone can find a discussion of Agora on-line by an actual history professor, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

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