Saturday, July 17, 2010

Agora (2009)

Set in Egypt, Alexandria, around the year 391 Agora tells the story of the rising of Christianity from a cult of the lower classes to the official religion. Its clash with other religions and the bigger fight between faith and science.

The main character is Hypatia, a real character from history, a woman philosopher who devoted her life to teaching and studying. She had some influence with Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria at the time, and was eventually killed by a Christian mob who believed her to be the cause of the enmity between Orestes and the Bishop Cyril. The movie portrays Hypatia's relationship with Orestes, from the time when he was her student, to when he is Prefect and she is killed. It also stages a sort of love triangle between Hypatia, Orestes and Davus, a slave who is much interested in her scientific studies but ends up choosing Christianity and faith instead of questioning.

I thought the movie was beautiful to watch. A beautiful setting, costumes, filming... everything contributes to a successful result in terms of image. Among the scenes that I love I can mention the scenes ones shot from above with everyone running around. Where I think it failed is how the story is told. I thought its biggest strength would be to question the problems of faith and scientists knowledge. How they have stood in opposite camps for most of the time, no matter what religion we are talking about and also how religious motivations have been used time and again to disguise political interests. But instead the story focuses too much on Hypatia and her absorption with Philosophy and Science. She seemed totally unaware of the political currents around her which I found a bit unbelievable and even exasperating.

There's also a lot of violence in this movie. It is without a doubt that these were violent times and although there's at least one scene where the Jews starting the violence most of the story shows the Christians as the main instigators. When violence is rife it’s rarely only one group that is responsible but since Hypatia died, and in a horrific way, at the hands of the Christians I think that might have set the perspective. One of the most important historical moments of the movie shows the destruction of the Serapeum at the orders of Emperor Theodosius and Patriarch Theophilus. It almost seems like what they are destroying is the famous Ancient Library of Alexandria but since that one had already disappeared we'll have to think of this as historical liberties.

Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia wonderfully. She looks beautiful, elegant, and rational and is certainly one of the highlights of the movie. Oscar Isaac as Orestes and Max Minghella as Davus are very competent counterparts to her character (I must admit that during the first half hour I was completely puzzled by a sense of recognition whenever Isaac appeared till finally I identified him as Prince John in Robin Hood). And Sami Samir, who plays Bishop Cyril also does a wonderful job mesmerising the multitudes. However they all felt a bit too black and white.

In the end I couldn't help being a bit disappointed with the fact that I thought the movie could have been more than it actually was, both in terms of developing the ideas and of the ending which I felt was too abrupt. But there's no doubt that it gave me plenty of food for thought and that is always a good thing. In fact, I think we need more movies like this one!


Official Site

This is an entry for the Period Drama Challenge in the Around the World category


  1. Thanks for the heads up on this one. I'm headed over to Blockbuster online to see if they have it!

  2. A thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. As you point out, Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (the Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. I don't go to the movies for accurate history.

    For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

  3. Faith, thank you for the book recommendation. I'll add it to my wish list. I'll also check your blog.


I love to chat about books and stuff and I would love to hear from like minded readers. Please do leave me a comment :-)


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