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Laramie Movie Scope:
Agora

Biopic of Hypatia: Are science and Christianity compatible?

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2009) Are science and Christianity compatible? A belief in the certitude of perfection can blind one to reality as revealed through science. The philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) says to the bishop of Cyrene, formerly one of her students: "Synesius, you don't question what you believe. You cannot. I must."

In the city of Alexandria in the Egypt of the Roman Empire in AD 391, teaching her students that the circle is the perfection of the heavens and that the Earth by being at the center of the universe pulls all things toward its core, Hypatia also recognizes that Ptolemy's model of the solar system with its epicycles - a replica of which her personal slave Davus (Max Mighella) has created and explicates its operation to the class - nevertheless, complicates everything.

"It all seems so whimsical," Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the star pupil, criticizes: "Why the joint effect of two circles? Wouldn't it be more perfect if the wanderers didn't wander and a single circle gave sense to everything?" Synesius objects: "Orestes, by what authority do you judge the work of God?" "What is wrong with you Christians?" Orestes responds: "Can a man no longer open his mouth in this city?" Synesius replies: "If you criticize creation, you criticize our Lord and you offend us."

Hypatia reminds the students of Euclid's first law, If two are equal to a third, as applied to a pagan, a Christian, and a nonbeliever (herself), then they have more in common than differences, thus making them "all brothers."

Out in the agora Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), a Christian leader, debating with a pagan, performs a public miracle of walking through fire unscathed while his rival attempting the same is scorched. Davus, having been whipped by Theon (Michael Lonsdale), Hypatia's father, for disclosing his Christian affiliation, goes to Ammonius, inspired by the miraculous demonstration of passing unharmed through flames.

Co-writers Mateo Gil and director Alejandro Amenábar depict in this historical drama (70 years after the First Council of Nicaea) how with the imprimatur of Rome's Emperor Flavius Theodosius August (last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire) a theocracy of Christians became intolerantly cruel, bent on exterminating and expelling anyone not wholly devoted to their dogma, beginning with all heathens and then Jews.

In public Orestes, after Hypatia had deflected his expression of affection for her toward the more beautiful muse of music, declares his love before performing on the aulos; Davus, also secretly desiring his mistress, prays to God: ""Don't let anyone else have her." Theon respects his daughter's freedom to pursue her science over marriage.

When a Christian mob insults the pagan gods, Olympius demands a violent response (Hypatia's protest falls on deaf ears), which Theon foolishly seconds, receiving a blow to his head by his own slave during the clash. Astonished at "so many Christians" in their midst, the pagans take refuge in the Serapeum (the temple dedicated to the syncretic Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis) and library, realizing the need to negotiate.

Reminded by an elderly man of Aristarchus's ancient assertion of a heliocentric model - "Aristarchus maintained that the Earth moves. The strange behavior of the wanderers was nothing more than an optical illusion caused by our movement in combination with theirs around the Sun" - Hypatia ("If I could just unravel this just a little bit more, and just get a little closer to the answer, then... Then I would go to my grave a happy woman") listens as well to Davus's caveat: "If the Earth is moving, every time you drop an object, it would fall further behind…."

Outside the Prefect announces the emperor's verdict in favor of the Christians along with an order for the "insurgents" to immediately depart from the library and temple. Fearing that the Christians - battering down the gates while shouting "God is one! Hallelujah!" - will desecrate, destroy, and burn the knowledge and wisdom of ages, Hypatia and others collect as many of the most important scrolls as they can carry for safekeeping.

Eventually only Christian and Jewish worship is permitted in Alexandria. Several years later, Orestes has become Prelate and a baptized Christian while Ammonius is the leader of the Parabalani, an order of monks, who turn against the Jews ("those evil butchers of our Lord" who saw only a man when God was standing before them), instigating a massacre of the Hebrews: "When this is all over there will be no more Jews in Alexandria."

Also a Parabalano, Davus says doubtfully, recalling Hypatia's freeing him from bondage: "I was forgiven, but now I can't forgive."

Occupied with confounding evidence from the celestial sphere contradicting her theory of circles, Hypatia says to her assistant Aspasius: "How could it [the Sun] occupy two positions at once?" Called before the theocratic council, Hypatia, who serves as unofficial (yet most trusted) advisor to Orestes, is addressed by the African Heladius dignitary (Sylvester Morand): "The majority of us here ... have accepted Christ. Why not the rest of you? It's only a matter of time and you know it."

Hypatia replies: "Really? It is just a matter of time?... As far as I am aware, your God has not yet proved himself to be more just or more merciful than his predecessors. Is it really just a matter of time before I accept your faith?" The Heladius dignitary answers: "Why should this assembly accept the counsel of someone who admittedly believes in absolutely nothing?" She rebuts his allegation: "I believe in philosophy."

Returning to her research, Hypatia considers: "We do not move in a circle…. Ever since Plato, all of them - Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Ptolemy - they have all, all, all tried to reconcile their observations with circular orbits. But what if another shape is hiding in the heavens?" Davus protests: "Another shape? Lady, there is no shape more pure than the circle; you taught us that." Hypatia replies: "I know, I know, but suppose - just suppose! - the purity of the circle has blinded us from seeing anything beyond it! I must begin all over with new eyes. I must rethink everything! ... What if we dared to look ..."

Bishop Cyril (Sammy Samir) reads to a congregation including Orestes ("I am as Christian as you are") from St Paul's epistle to Timothy: "'Let a woman learn in quietness and in full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.' This is the Word of God." He then pronounces Hypatia guilty of ungodliness and witchcraft. The story comes full circle only in the sense that a circle is a very special ellipse.

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Copyright © 2014 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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