A not infrequent topic of discussion in the House of Forks revolves around the definition of a hero. It is closely linked to discussions of truth, honesty and religion, depending on whether it’s the GOFA or myself leading the charge of the moment. We both have our religious perceptions, filtered and bound by experience and literature, both here and aborad and we’ve come to a similar conclusion – religion is an aberration. Religion makes many things that would otherwise be considered unacceptable, permissible. And so it would seem to be with one of the founding fathers of the Roman Catholic Church, Cyril of Alexandria. Raised in the faith, I had never heard of him until the GOFA and I finally got our schedules together for our date night and saw Agora, a Cannes finalist from 2009. If you like stories of religious fervour and appreciate the value of an unhappy yet realistic ending, I highly recommend you make your way to your nearest art-house cinema.
Agora recounts the rise of Christianity in Alexandria, then part of the vast Roman Empire, with such wonders as the Lighthouse and the remnants of the Great Library (much of which seems to have been lost around CE275, leaving only the Serapeum, a central point in the movie). The followers of Jesus had spread wide, finally reaching the ancient melting pot of Alexandria, with its mix of Jews and pagans. The followers of the Christ, described by another as “The Dead man on a Cross”, are portrayed in the movie with great fervour; you could perhaps, call it fundamentalist. They believe without question, accepting the authority of a minor leader, Ammonius, a Nitrian monk leading a band of black-clad disciples called the parabalaca, without argument. The one person who does wonder at the wrong of the fervent righteous actions and motivations of his sect is too afraid to speak out; he turns away from what he knows is wrong and allows things to happen, knowing that his own fate is limited if he voices dissent.
At the top of the chain is Cyril, Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Alexandria and Saint. If the adage about the buck stopping at the top is to be taken literally, then Cyril has a lot to answer for with the atrocities metered out to non-Christians by those acting under the guise of The Man on a Cross. A mob mentality would certainly be hard to rein in, but it is the very failures of people at the top of a chain of command that legitimise the behaviour of bullies and vigilantes.
The Jews are victimised as much as the pagans. The tit-for-tat retribution, the hallmark of feuding, is rife in this movie; Christians attack and belittle Jews, Jews deceive and attack Christians. This is sort of thing that starts wars.
At the heart of the movie is the pagan philosopher Hypatia who refuses to accept the blind faith and subordination inherent in the Christianity of the time. For her bravery, she is murdered. The movie shows her spared from the ravages of the true brutality of her death, variously reported as being stripped naked, stoned, skinned alive, dragged through the streets and burned. Such were the followers of The Dead Man on a Cross, himself a Jew. It is no coincidence that one of the early scenes is the Bishop Theodosius, Cyril’s predecessor, reading the Beatitudes. There is certainly no mercy shown to anyone who refuses to acknowledge the ‘true’ God.
The depiction of Hypatia in Agora is that of a true hero, a person who refuses to speak a lie to relieve the conscience of another. She has a brilliant line, in which she explains to Orestes, her friend and the Imperial Prefect, that Christianity requires the believer never to question, but that she as a philosopher must. It is this admission that seals her fate and results in her martyrdom. Christianity will never recognise her as such and indeed the romantic view portrayed by Agora is undoubtedly biased against the ancient Christians, but it does not alter the fact that she died for her beliefs. The GOFA and I both agree that Hypatia, be she right or wrong, is a true hero worthy of greater plaudits than those who cover up or justify the murderous intents of a band of thugs. Whilst Gibran may have been right that, ‘God made Truth with many doors to welcome every believer who knocks on them’, I will continue to eschew religion and all its dogmatic rhetoric.