on June 22, 2010
Is it right to question? Is it proper to doubt? Is it the question itself, or the questioner, who offends in asking? These are some of the issues presented in "Agora", the compelling film by Alejandro Amenabar starring Rachel Weisz.
The film presents the fascinating life of the Roman philosopher/mathematician/scientist Hypatia, a neo-Platonist philosopher of 4th century Alexandria. Very little is known of her scientific or philosophical discoveries, as none of her writings survived the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity. What we do know of her comes from other writers of the period, who tell us she was widely regarded as the bright jewel of the empire for her wisdom, virtue and brilliant erudition. The broader outlines of her life are known, as are the larger historical and cultural context in which she lived.
As the film opens, Hypatia is laboring to develop a theory that explains the orbits of the planets in contradiction to the accepted Ptolemaic model of the time. Amenabar and his writer take a few artistic liberties in his presentation, as he imagines Hypatia's train of thought along these lines in the absence of any documentary evidence. We just don't know if this was in fact the case. But never mind that, as Art is well served here.
Do the planets travel around the earth, or the sun? Hypatia struggles relentlessly with this question against the backdrop of abrupt and shocking changes in Roman culture. The early Christians have gained a political foothold with imperial favor, and begin to challenge the Pagans and Jews in the provincial capital. The confrontations become violent. As the Christians gain power, they repress any differences of belief and insist on agreement with their faith, often at the point of a sword. Fascinated with this emerging model of the universe, Hypatia persists in her inquiries in the face of growing danger.
Amenabar has created a very convincing Alexandria. The sets and costumes are wonderful, and the writing is quick and idiomatic. Rachel Weisz gives another stand-out performance as a genius completely taken up with the creative process of thought. Weisz's Hypatia is a woman of great perspicacity, intellectual honesty, personal warmth and moral courage. She gives us the convincing internal struggle with a Really Big Idea, a feat of acting that requires great artistic restraint. She succeeds admirably. Hypatia's simple scientific experiments are mesmerizing and charged with drama. Her intellectual struggles are at the same time rigorous and intuitive, deeply moving, yet not cold or distant. She cares about the people around her as much as her Really Big Idea. The rest of the cast performs at the same superb level.
Much has been said elsewhere about the romantic interests in the film. Fortunately, these are entirely secondary to the larger contrasts of the emerging cosmological model and the ultimate closing of the Roman mind. And it is highly refreshing to see a plot driven by a conflict other than the typical Hollywood-formula "love interest".
In life, we know that Hypatia died a martyr to her beliefs. We also know that this moment in European history marked the beginning of the end of the free-thinking philosophy peculiar to Classical, Hellenistic culture. Which makes Hypatia's problems quite contemporary, as people everywhere face the same challenge today. Is it good or right to question? If history is any judge then it certainly is, because that is the only way one will arrive at the truth.
on June 2, 2010
Alexandria was one of the most glorious cities of Eurasia, a hybrid of three sets of cultures, European, Nubian and Asian created by Alexander and the Ptolemy dynasty around 320BCE. Its heyday was probably around 200BCE and it lasted well over a millennium. Alexandria was eclipsed by the dark ages around 415 when the whole of Egyptian history in the classical mould came to an end as Theodosius, the Emperor of a dying Rome imposed Christianity on Egypt. Most temples, their gods and writings were destroyed or defaced, from Zeus in Olympia to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus in modern Turkey. In Egypt the Seraphium was destroyed, a daughter library to the famous library of Alexandria that was probably largely destroyed around 50BCE when Julius Caesar took over Alexandria and Egypt fell under Roman sway. This film is very much an encapsulation of the Christianisation of Alexandria and the destruction of its ancient ways, making it ripe for ruin and decay. The one structure that did survive that forms a backdrop to this film is the Pharos lighthouse, created in 250BCE that survived all the way into around 1280 by which time Alexandria was part of the Islamic Empire.
As a satellite city of Rome, Alexandria still enjoyed a cultural and educational reputation at the time of Hypatia, a neoplatonist philosopher who had studied in Athens and Italy. She taught at the Seraphaeum representing a sort of University/Library scholastic complex dedicated to learning. Hypatia was part scientist and mathematician but also and no less importantly a philosopher. She probably believed in transcendental modes of consciousness as taught by Plotinus. She worked with her farther Theon and together they edited several works, clarified various mathematical books added their own contributions, none of which have survived (though some of Hypatias editing may be present in Greek mathematics that she helped transmit). Hypatia invented or devised several scientific instruments. She was obviously a person of importance, not merely a noted academic. Towards 415AD there was a power struggle between the Roman prefect Orestes and the Roman Archbishop Cyril of Alexandria. Orestes was allied with Hypatia and Cyril probably engineered her elimination as a symbol of paganism and witchcraft.
What facts we have come from the letters of her students among other works, including clergymen and the historian Socrates Scholasticus. We know very little about whether the Serapheum had a large book collection and how much of the library of Alexandria had survived there into the time of Hypatia.
This film encapsulates the facts available in the context of a triangle of rivalry between Judaism, Christianity and Paganism and also a struggle between the Church and State. It objectifies Alexandria seen from space. The restoration of the city is very good but perhaps does not do justice to the glories of the city that once was that probably possessed more colour, rather than the dusty restoration the film presents. I was disappointed that there were so many candles shown. They did not use candles. They used lamps of olive oil and we know much about these lamps from surviving examples. So much more could have been shown about Hypatia herself, even as a semi fictitious character. Maybe a vignette of her writing with a quill pen in lamp light, and how she travelled around in a carriage rather than on foot. Here we do get glimpses of her with her students and a famous incident of her rebuffing one of them who declared his love for her. This incident did take place. More is shown of Hypatia the astronomer and scientist and less of her as a spiritual being, a philosopher though some indication is given. My favourite line is concerns Hypatia stating that her father would have celebrated a conjunction between Mars and perhaps Jupiter in Aquarius. Hypatia was no atheist secularist though she would have been a rational thinker who questioned dogma as the film tries to show.
I believe that given the limited resources the film commanded they have done the best they could. Indeed certain details of the script reveal a depth of reading and research that is new to me to deserve exploration. They concentrate on Hypatia formulating a heliocentric view of the Earth's rotation as stated by Aristarchus from one of his books. We hear about this book from the "mother library" that once was in Alexandria of which the Serapheum, associated with Hypatia was a satellite.
In this film they indicate bloody conflicts arising between the pagans and the Christians. I think that most of the aggression came from the Christians given they were supported by Rome and there isn't much evidence for the pagans attacking Christians in cold blood as indicated (though blood was probably spilt one way or another). We are aware that the Serapheum was destroyed and the film recreates this incident on the basis of a precedent which is questionable. Later we see another scene where the Jews rouse the ire of the Christians. What is clear from history is that the Jews of Alexandria were attacked and dispersed, again rendered in unholy detail in this film. The ancient anti semitism is portrayed very realistically and may arouse emotion.
The conflict between Orestes and St Cyril is dramatized extremely well leading to a rather tragic climax. Rachel Weisz gives a good performance where Hypatia stands out like an English heroine. The real Hypatia may have been a bit more tanned (and theoretically a lot older when she died) but Weisz is believable. If only the props were a bit better, with lamps and a carriage for her. Her face looks pained and haunted as she is lead to her death, dealt with rather sensitively if a touch unconvincingly given Hypatia's slave who softens the blow.
Dramatic license is acceptable and much of the context is very powerfully served up. I could have watched a film an hour longer if necessary if more history was introduced. We see the theatre and overall the city comes alive, about as close as a film could ever take you to classical Alexandria. The fanaticism of emergent Christianity is I believe faithful enough though this film is not an attack on religion per se. Indeed, it always tries to create a precedent to indicate why the Christians became hostile, precedents not always contained in history though the hostility was clear. Overall, the film does a good job.
The greatest tragedy of this film is that despite covering its costs it has had a poor audience in the USA and the UK. As far as I'm aware the film was only largely shown in London in two cinemas and rather tentatively at that. I get the impression there is a conspiracy to suppress this film that mirrors the conspiracy to suppress Hypatia. Far more deserves to be shown of Alexandria as a centre of learning and humanity at its finest. Egypt was far more glorious then than it even aspires to today. However the glories of Alexandria continue to emerge from the sea. Above all the Egyptians could learn from this film, though the bulk of them will probably remain unconvinced.
The flavor and power of this film is sufficiently strong and convincing for it to be considered very significant. At least as significant as the old Cleopatra film (with Elizabeth Taylor) that happened to be a cinematic flop. I just hope this film helps to keep the lamps and the light alive for civilisation to continue without getting bogged down in dogma.
on July 28, 2010
1500 years later, the story of Hypatia continues to rouse furious controversy. I recently came across a religious blog decrying AGORA which began: "I have not actually seen the movie, and have no intention of doing so...All I know about it is what I have read in an article in the New York Times..."and then proceeded to "debunk" the movie. Thus making precisely the point that Amenábar is making in AGORA, about the pernicious nature of dogma. Bow down before my holy book, or die!
This is a magnificent movie, perhaps the best film ever made about the Ancient World, and visually one of the most beautiful films you'll ever seen. The soundtrack is as haunting as the visuals; the scene in which Orestes plays the pipes before a crowd of theater-goers in an attempt to woo Hyapatia could have become kitsch in lesser hands, but Amenábar imbues the moment with an unforgettable poignancy. This is also one of the scenes in which the camera rises high above the earth, establishing a cosmic viewpoint that informs the whole movie. There is true genius in the making of AGORA.
on June 6, 2010
The review by Sarakani covers most of the bases, so I won't duplicate them here. I will point out that the casting and acting were phenomenal. The direction was very good, save for the fact that transitions from one scene to the next were sometimes to abrupt and tended to break the mood. I will disagree with Sarakani on one thing. This film is a much better film than Elizabeth Taylor's 'Cleopatra'.
I agree that there was a conspiracy to keep this film from wide distribution in the US. The reason is quite simple. Those who would distribute the film fear the right wing Chrisianity much as the pagans feared the Christian thugs in the time the film portrayed.
George Santayana said it best. "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Learn, people.
on April 8, 2011
"Agora" is a must-see for anyone who appreciates a first-rate movie. The production and acting are excellent. Most importantly it is about as accurate as historical movies ever get to the story of what happened to Hypatia. Watching religious/political fanatics destroy the Library at Alexandria was wrenching! All that knowledge gone. That, and her murder by those fanatics marked the beginning of a 1,000-year suppression of scientific thinking and discovery in favor of theological musings on the level of how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. There was only one significant historical inaccuracy that I noted, and that was the manner of Hypatia's murder. The movie sanitized it by having the fanatics stone her already dead body. In fact, the historical record is that they dragged her from her chariot into the street and flayed her alive with clam shells, tearing her skin from her body. This at the order of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, who was later canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint. Watch the movie and consider what it means, and what it takes, to live in a free society - and how fragile that freedom always is.
on July 19, 2010
I agree with the other reviewers in giving this movie five stars. It's a beautiful, thought-provoking and exciting film. But it doesn't need any sort of conspiracy to get a narrow distribution in the USA. It's just not a particularly commercial film, and that's a good thing! If one is going to suggest conspiracies, you could just as easily say there was some sort of "Jewish conspiracy" against the movie, as the film deplores bigotry of any kind, not just Christian fundamentalism.
You come away from the film with a great admiration for the heroine, and compassion for all people who try to forge a path of reason in a world of mindless hatred. "Agora" is well worth checking out. It's one of my two favorite films so far this year. The other is "How to Train Your Dragon" so I'm not an elitist!
on June 9, 2013
I have a strong interest in the historical period of 1,000 BC to 1,000 CE but I rarely watch movies that attempt to depict this era as they seem to impose modern values and traits on the characters. However, this movie was recommended by a professor in a video course I am taking on the transition from Paganism to Christianity.
The scenes, clothing and attitudes seem to present an excellent portrayal of Alexandria at the end of the Roman Empire. It does not clean up the brutality of the period by making the emerging Christian movement appear to be one of kindness, love and understanding towards their fellow humans who might not agree with their religious beliefs. It reveals that the early Christians of the 5th century behaved very much like the Taliban of the Islamic culture - intolerant and politically motivated, rather than guided by "God". "Convert or Die" was as prevalent then as it is now.
Some of the dialog was difficult to hear as people spoke in whispers and low voices since, just as in modern radical Islamic settings, your words could condemn you to death. Those who only understand the evolution of Christianity through Bible Study groups might feel that this film was unduly harsh on the Christians; those who understand History as what it really was, will find this to be a realistic look at a world that has been romanticized to conceal the unpleasant, ugly facts of 'how the West was won' in the late Roman Empire.
Not a pleasant 'feel-good' movie; it is one that can be disturbing in its honesty and historical significance. It is no surprise that it was never released in the USA to the general movie audience. As an added bonus, the acting was superb - not a clunker scene in the entire movie.
on February 13, 2016
Just got around to seeing this and it was well worth it. It's thought provoking to say the least - a tale of how easily the world's great religions can (and have) been hijacked and held hostage to ignorance and people's worst failings. Some Christians seem to think their faith is immune. This is a cinematic gem, a movie with a story, symbolism that is powerfully and beautifully rendered, and I've got to believe realistic. While not completely historically accurate and certainly the love interests are fictional...Hypatia, the main character was real. So was, according to historical accounts, her horrible death at the hands of a vicious mob. If you're into action/adventure, the pace may be too slow for your liking but for me, this was the best movie I've seen in a long time.
The major character in this large-scale film, "Agora" (2009) is Hypatia of Alexandria (350? - 415 A.D.), a beautiful and brilliant philosopher and mathematician performed by Rachel Weisz. Set in Alexandria, Egypt, this film is an expensive, lavish production, a throwback in many ways to other extravagant epics set in ancient Greece or Rome. The film is Spanish in origin and directed by Alejandro Amenebar. The movie is serious in intent. It portrays Hypatia as a scholar without religious belief intent only upon free disinterested scientific inquiry. She is caught in the turbulence of 4th Century Alexandria in the decaying Roman Empire in the violence among pagans, Jews, and Christians. The violence results in the destruction of the storied Library of Alexandria, a treasure house of wisdom in the ancient world. Religious fanaticism and sectarianism also leads to Hypatia's death at the hands of a Christian mob.
Other than Weisz' portrayal of the heroine, the acting in this movie tends to be wooden and the dialogue stilted. The most effective scenes are those of Hypatia in her study. She is a renowned teacher whose students include individual from all creeds and status united only by the desire to learn. She is a geometer who has studied the properties of cones. A student of Ptolemy, Hypatia becomes skeptical of his geocentric model of the solar system in which the earth is at the center. She becomes interested in the theory that the planets revolve around the sun. The difficulties she finds in this theory result from, among other things, the teleological view of reality she inherits from Plato and Aristotle which teaches that movement of astronomical bodies in their orbits must be circular because the circle is the most perfect shape. The movie shows Hypatia working away from this theory towards a more modern understanding.
Much of the movie consists of the mob scenes and violence common to epic films of the ancient world. There is large-scale, brutal fighting between Christians and pagans and between Christians and Jews as the Christians are shown as mindlessly and violently destroying what was best in the ancient world. In the film, Hypatia is shown as having at least three suitors, one a former slave, and another a highly placed prefect who tries to bring a balance between the claims of the Church and the competing voices of paganism. Hypatia rejects romantic love in scenes that are muffled in their purpose and mostly confused.
The problem I found with the movie was that its format does not work to convey the complexity of the issues that it tries to raise. Instead, it offers what on its face is a garish, expensive production which, whatever its virtues as entertainment, does not encourage reflection. "Agora" has its heart in the right place in its skepticism and commitment to free inquiry, but the cost is great oversimplification of philosophical and historical issues and anachronism. While this movie has been praised for its portrayal of free inquiry and for its critique of religious exclusivism, it doesn't grapple in any depth with its themes. A rather free-wheeling historical epic seems to me to contrast with the quiet, independent spirit and thought that the movie tries properly to attribute to Hypatia. I was frustrated by the movie and unconvinced that it left me wiser than I had been before about Alexandria, Hypatia, or religion and science. It seems to me that the movie substitutes one set of oversimplified platitudes for another.
on April 4, 2016
This beautifully crafted movie should make misogynists uncomfortable. How many women there are who have been loved deeply, but persecuted to the point of death. The science of Alexandria was destroyed by the fundamentalists of religions, just as the world still hears the screams of such destruction today. We are still the black, the red, and the gray bugs on a big, blue, slightly skewed planet. We are still brothers and sisters. And yet we still destroy each other. I was sad today about our world, but this film shows we have yet to be love, and that is what God is. God is love.