Note: This review may contain spoilers.
When Agora had its UK cinema release recently it opened to sparse, albeit respectful, reviews. There was certainly very little hype or debate surrounding the movie such as I've seen recently for the new TV series of Spartacus (of which a little more anon.) Perhaps this is because Agora is a fairly rare breed of cinematic bird - a movie epic which attempts to be literate, intelligent and clearly aimed at your brain rather than your viscera. Previous cinematic attempts at this sort of thing - Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) come to mind - have usually resulted in commercial failure whereas historical travesties such the recent 300 have done well. So is director Amenabar guilty of overestimating the public's taste?
The first thing you'll notice about Agora is that it looks like one hell of an expensive production. It's richly detailed with magnificent sets and costumes all looking marvellously authentic. And the film is a pictorial delight. The opening scene in which Hypatia addresses her students in a lecture hall is bathed in the kind of shimmering luminosity you see in those 19th century painters who recreated meticulous tableaux of antiquity. And so it continues, scene after scene beautifully and imaginatively lensed. The result is a pictorial triumph and whilst clearly CGI effects have been employed (for example in the giddy views of ancient Alexandria viewed from space) there's none of the garish and obvious CGI effects which characterise essentially low budget productions like 300 and the new Spartacus.
What of the story? Hypatia ought to be a much bigger feminist icon than she is. She was undoubtedly one of the finest intellects of the late antique world, renowned as philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. It was her misfortune to be born at the wrong time, just as Christianity was evolving from being an oppressed and persecuted cult into the state religion of the Roman Empire and becoming itself the oppressor and persecutor of anything and anyone who disagreed with the holy scriptures. The learning, logic and scientific method espoused by the pagan Hypatia was anathema to the Christians and, even worse, she was a woman. For over a 1000 years after Hypatia's death in AD415 nearly all the great intellects of the western world expended their grey matter on sterile metaphysics (you've probably heard about those mediaeval theologians who debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.)
Hypatia was renowned for her beauty as well as her intellectual attainments and in this movie she is loved by two men, her student Orestes who eventually becomes Governor of Alexandria but is powerless to defend her against the fury of the Christian mob, and the young slave who is torn between his lust for Hypatia and his fanatical allegiance to the Christian faith who in the final tragic and moving scene of the movie is indeed able to "save" her (although this requires a tweaking of the known historical facts.) The movie also has some exciting and spectacular action sequences as when the Christian mob storm Alexandria's legendary library and consign the learning of antiquity to the flames. Viewers will not be hard-pressed to find modernday parallels among the religions, cults and belief-systems that still make our world a frightening place. But the focus of the movie is on Hypatia's attempt to unravel the mysteries of our solar system. The renowned astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who flourished in Alexandria 250 years before Hypatia, had asserted and "proved" that the celestial bodies including the sun orbited the earth but her own observations lead her to favour the older heliocentric system of the philosopher Aristarchus, only the mathematics don't add up. Hypatia attempts to crack the enigma and whilst there is no historical evidence for this storyline it is not, historically, totally implausible. Unfortunately for her the forces of unreason close in and for over a 1000 years the fallacious system of Ptolemy holds sway.
Some reviewers have been offended by what they perceive to be an anti-Christian or anti-faith agenda in Agora, or even worse, a kind of atheist manifesto. In my opinion this view is misconceived. One might just as well argue that movies like Quo Vadis are anti-pagan, or that the Ten Commandments does a hatchet job on the gods of ancient Egypt or that Samson and Delilah is beastly to the Philistines and their god Dagon, all surely by-products of the story being told. I prefer to interpret the movie as a warning to us about the effects of fanaticism and unreason. Hypatia is depicted as a beacon of rational thought in an increasingly irrational age, not as some kind of pagan saint, and that is what makes this movie relevant to us.
I have a few minor quibbles about the movie. Miss Weisz is a favourite actress of mine but she occasionally projects the image of a well-bred girl who has just left finishing school. Apart from that she acquits herself well in the difficult role of a beauty with great intellect. I found the acting of the rest of the cast adequate rather than remarkable (the absence of really well-known names among the supporting players will probably do the movie few favours.) Some viewers may find they don't engage or sympathise with the main protagonists to feel sufficiently involved, as the movie, until the final moving scene, seeks to stimulate your grey matter rather than your emotions. And I think the title "Agora", the Greek for marketplace or forum, is not particularly inspired or enticing (and on the two occasions I heard the word mentioned in this movie it was mispronounced with the stress on the second syllable.) But quibbles aside, this is a pretty impressive movie and I'm giving it 5 stars particularly in recognition of its high production values and pictorial splendours and for not insulting my intelligence.
Does Agora stand any chance of being commercially successful? Well I hope it does and I hope the DVD sales make up for what I infer was a cool reception at the cinema. I've just finished watching the first series of the new TV Spartacus with its lashings of soft core sex and hard core violence (I'd better say nothing about the script or the acting) - it's perversely entertaining as indeed was 300 but not in the least edifying. The makers of Agora approach the medium of film as an intelligent art form whereas the makers of Spartacus have conceived their project as a form of exploitation. Which production do you think is likely to make a better return on its investment?
on 4 May 2010
It surprises me how many reviewers are giving this astonishing film only three stars, and I do hope this is not because the film chooses not to dwell on the viciousness of Hypatia's murder: a decision which would have made a cinematic 'spectacle' entirely inappropriate for this must subtle and beautiful of films.
The astonishingly realistic recreation of fourth century Alexandria is in itself a remarkable cinematic feat, the costumes look entirely authentic, the performances are flawless, and the cinematography - always beautiful - is often thoroughly awe inspiring. Ultimately, however, what makes this film so great is the way in which it puts human beings into perspective (swarming fundamentalists ransacking the agora are likened to ants, and in one of the most inspired shots in cinematic history, Alexandria is viewed from outer space, and is sublime and utterly insignificant all at once) whilst suggesting that human beings are nevertheless capable of reaching the heights of reason, and plumbing the depths of unreason. It is one of the ironies of history that the monstrous 'Saint' Cyril of Alexandria is recognised as a Doctor of the Church, whilst not a single word written by Hypatia has survived.
Much ink will be wasted in coming months in discussion of whether this film deliberately paints Christianity in a bad light. The truth is that no form of religious extremism looks good in this film, and for that reason alone, it ought to be statutory viewing for all people who are convinced that theirs is the only god.
Forget the lukewarm reviews, and see this film for yourself. I found myself on the edge of tears throughout most of it, entranced by the splendour, wisdom and realism of its vision. The ending was the hardest and the truest thing I have ever seen in a film.
But don't trust me. Make up your own mind. That is what Hypatia would have told you to do.
on 12 December 2010
Some reviewers have questioned the historical accuracy of this film, however this isn't a documentary. Even if it was a lot of speculation would have to be employed.
This film, quite simply,is the most intelligently scripted and researched 'epic' that I have seen for a long, long time.
We know that Hypatia was a reknowned (neo?)Platonic philosopher, pagan and proto-scientist.We know that she taught and that her classes were attended by the elite of Alexandrian society. We know that she was percieved to be influential to the municipal rulers and that she was butchered by a Christian mob. We know that St Cyril called for the expulsion of Jews from Alexandria. We know that there was murderous strife between the civil authotites and the Christian sects in Alexandria in that period.
Her love interest,her precocious views on elliptical planetary orbits and much else of the 'personal' side of her life are cinematic conjecture,designed to enrich the plot.
Whilst most recent 'epics' have spent millions on computer graphics and about £10 on developing a script (witness the recent re-make of 'Clash of the Titans'), I am delighted to say that 'Agora' gives visually stunning panoramas of Alexandria, obviously well researched detailing of ancient world architecture, manners, clothing etc but has not stinted on intelligent and nuanced storylines.
The plot, whilst implicity deploring the results of religious bigotry, has some masterful ambiguities in its treatments of the protagonists. For instance the humanity of the Christian philosophy of charity to the poor is movingly demonstrated in one scene, and the bigotry of Hypatias socially respected Pagan father revealed in others.
The birds eye view likening Alexandria to a disturbed ants nest is another cinematic device which I think demonstrates the care and thought that went into this intelligent and at times beautiful film.
I am no expert in Ancient history, but I was pleased to see the hybridization of Hellenic and Egyptian ornaments and buildings, the fact that much of the statuary was painted ( as it would have been in ancient times.) I did note one anachronism, and doubtless an expert would catch a few more, but if ever a film cried out for a special features 'making of' disc, then this one does.
One reviewer called the film 'boring', if internicine politicking, violence, unrequited love, slavery, religious bigotry,philosophy,defence of the enquiring mind and much else all packaged in a sumptous and well realised ressurection of an amazing period of humanities past is boring then can I recommend instead 'Clash of theTitans'?
After watching this film I have taken down relevant history books, impulsively bought and collecting dust on the shelves. If a 'sword and sandal' epic can impell you to do that then it must be on the right track.
I hope that similar projects will see the light of day, man cannot live by CGI alone.
on 4 October 2010
I didnt know what to expect from this film, but what I got moved me. Set in the ancient city of Alexandria during the final years of the old Roman Empire. The 'Age of Reason' is being destroyed by religious intollerence and conflict between the followers of the old Gods, the Christians and the Jews. Through this political and religious turmoil, a few scholars try to keep mans knowledge and understanding of the universe from being destroyed by the Christains who wish to remove everything that does not adhere to the teachings of their lord. The movie shows the damage that religious extremism can do but it never tries to paint anyone particular faith as villanious. Instead it tries to point-out the true insignificance of it all and that knowledge and understanding should be protected. Atheists will love this film but, to be honest, it should be enjoyable to all providing you can accept that religion has not always been benificial to mans progress and that great harm can be done through intollerance.
I will not give the story away but I will add that the movie is beautifully filmed, well acted and has such an authentic view of the ancient world that it almost took my breath away. It may be subtle, but the CGI used to recreate the ancient city of Alexandria had me totally convinced I was watching the real thing.
An excellent film.
on 16 May 2013
I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum although some plot details will be needed for the review to make sense. Also this review is to do with the ideas presented in the film rather than the technical or acting aspects.
Agora is ostensibly a biopic of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia who lived in Alexandria around the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century AD. Accounts of her life are sketchy and none of her own works, if indeed she wrote any survived. The fairest and most detailed account of her life and the events in Alexandria come from Socrates of Constantinople, a contemporary writing at the beginning of the 5th century. He was also a Christian and this is worth bearing in mind. In cases such as this where primary sources are minimal there is predictably, and perhaps necessarily, considerable scope for poetic licence. Added to that there is the obvious need when staging an expensive historical epic to put on something of a show. All of this should not distract us from taking seriously what this film has to say; or rather what it wants Hypatia to say to us as Westerners in the 21st century. All evocations of the antique world play on the fantasy and dream like perception we have of those times, steeped as they are in the Western cultural consciousness. But like Freud knew, when dealing with dreams what matters is not so much the dream content as the dream work. How does the dream rearrange familiar objects and characters, and what precisely does this arrangement aim to say about our own time?
The cinematography is outstanding throughout, recreating the life of a turbulent multicultural city in the Eastern Roman Empire. Much credit should go to the set designers and location managers who bring Alexandria to life as a crowded, dirty and often dangerous place to as faithful degree as possible. But behind the visual historical fidelity there are I would argue two ideals at work around which the story rotates; these being the character of Hypatia herself, and the Library of Alexandria. Now, Hypatia was a philosopher in late antiquity, but the character Rachel Weisz personifies is far closer to a modern liberal scientist, an independent and secular woman of reason. The role of science (which in the 4th century was not distinguished from philosophy) is written large in her character. She is seen grappling with problems of astronomy and mathematics, the director even going so far as to suggest she was on the verge of overturning Ptolemy's geocentric view of the universe. This is a total fiction but crucially it projects a very modern scientific view onto Hypatia, and it is this distortion that we are invited to identify with. Hypatia is to be seen reaching across the centuries as one of us. Her virtue is also exemplified to a preposterous degree as she is seen working with slaves, even allowing one slave to give a presentation to her class. She expounds a doctrine of liberal tolerance to bickering Christian and Pagan students and shows forgiveness in a way Christians would wish to claim only they can. All this is one side of the antagonistic opposition that the film depicts. On the other side are the religious believers.
It has been a historical commonplace ever since Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to depict the story of the late Empire as a gradual conversion to Christianity and absolutism, and with it (even perhaps because of it) the disintegration of the classical world and the entry into the Middle Ages. Christians have been the fall guy in this story for a long time but Agora is singularly unique in its portrayal of all religion as intolerant and destructive. We see Pagans attacking Christians, Christians attacking Pagans, Christians attacking Jews and Jews attacking Christians. Alexandria however was known to be an especially volatile city long before Constantine gave the nod to Christ, with riots and violence of all kinds being perpetrated by forces imperial, religious and otherwise. But director Amenabar want us to see this complex period in a very particular light.
The set piece of the first half of the film is the storming of the Serapeum, the temple dedicated to the Pagan god Serapis. Now here is where the other ideal, the library of Alexandria comes in. I won't deviate with a lengthy excursus on the history of the library but the main point to note is that the fate of the library is unknown. It is known that one part of the Serapeum was used to store books that were recovered when the original Royal Library of Alexandria was destroyed (how this happened is also disputed). There were at least two other occasions prior to 390AD that the library may have been destroyed but even then whether all or even most books were lost is unknown. Second point to note is that there is no evidence that after the Serapeum was closed when Paganism was banned under the edict of emperor Theodosius I that any books were burnt, or even that any were still stored in the building. But ideals have a hold on the contemporary mind, and when the modern viewer unsullied by the nuances and incompleteness of historical data witness the spectacle of bearded religious hordes gleefully burning the contents of what we are told is the greatest library on earth, full of the wisdom of humanity, it is not the rational mind that is being called upon to respond. The cinematographer knows your pain and when the mob enter the domed classroom smashing the instruments and tearing up books, the camera rotates 180 degrees; it is the death of the classical city, the world turned upside down.
Another striking image is a high angle (God's view) shot of the Christians scuttling about like insects burning books in the courtyard. The image of book burning is not the only stock trope of 20th century ignorance called upon in the film. It should by now be clear how the director has arranged the pieces in his dream, what fundamental antagonism he want you to witness and deplore. No, not Gibbon's 18th century thesis of Decline and Fall, but the post 9/11 world of clashing civilizations; the world of secular scientific reason under threat from the intolerant religious barbarians. Despite Agora's generally intelligent screenplay there are still moments of almost brazen didacticism. How naive to think we had finally changed laments Roman prefect Orestes after one bloody conflict, aping the Oxford view ala Richard Dawkins. Bishop Cyril publicly reads a notoriously misogynistic passage from the bible (1 Timothy 2:8-15 if you want to look it up) and is seen amongst a baying crowd of Christian monks called the Parabalani venerating an executed man as a martyr; a word we now commonly associate with terrorism and fundamentalism. The latter scene is of particular note as it ignores sources that report this was not a popular move; other Christians being uncomfortable with the title martyr as he had been executed for attacking a Roman official not for refusing to deny Christ.
In the last instance what all of this serves to obscure is the central role of power in the sorts of conflicts we see in Agora. Even Wikipedia, that bastion of detailed analysis has the events in Alexandria into which Hypatia was drawn as to do with Bishop Cyril and prefect Orestes. In a city like Alexandria the prefect could often end up an isolated figure with the army away on the frontier and being faced with a mass of near starving poor on the one hand and tax dodging civic notables on the other. Owing to the institution of Christian charity which the film does depict but without comment, the Bishops of major cities were increasingly important figures, not least in their potential ability to mediate between the imperial administration and the mob. This function of free speaking to power was a role which had often been afforded to philosophers in earlier times. The Christian Socrates of Constantinople reports that Hypatia was "of careful mind in performing the public duties affecting her city, [her] self-possession and freedom of speech derived from her culture". She could do little however in the Roman administration's struggle to maintain order between the various sects and groupings in Alexandria despite being the prefect's preferred council. The Bishop however could speak to the Christian mob and the poor. The role of the philosopher and the ideal of the classical city that she carried with her was slowly displaced. Despite Orestes old world sensibility the tide had turned, he could not afford to ignore Cyril in this new climate. These are the wider events that the story of Hypatia brings to tragic focus, not the very modern ideological perspective that this film wants to present. For let us not forget that the idea of a clash of civilizations and the unquestionable correctness of western reason has been used and is still being used to justify military intervention in Islamic world. It is after all from recent conflicts that Agora derives many of its images. Be they woman hating fundamentalists, book burning bearded fanatics, or murderous men after martyrdom, this director, like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris before him damns all faith but principally takes aim at Islam.
I would not go so far as to call Agora propaganda for militant atheists, although I'm sure they'll like it. What stops it being propaganda is the film's mostly intelligent screenplay, the wonderful attention to visual if not historical detail, and the very fact that this story from a little exposed era of history has even been given such epic cinematic treatment at all. I identify with Hypatia as so many have done down the centuries (even Christians), but I do not identify with the crude and obscurantist perspective that the film makers want to project onto her. If philosophy means anything it is the solemn and necessary duty to subject power to critique. Agora's perspective is borne of power, the power to bomb civilians with unmanned drones, to manipulate public opinion through mass media, and to stoke up fear and prejudice and call it enlightenment. Power re-writes history in its own image, the duty of critique is to unravel it.
on 27 May 2014
The DVD quality was excellent, watched on a Panansonic 50" GT30.
The film is basically exploring religious intolerance but with a heavy bias against early Christians (4th century).
I've read comments by people on internet sites, say silly things to the effect, this film opened my eyes as to what Christianity is about. Unfortunately for them and their new found wisdom, this film is not a documentary created from peer reviewed papers. A lot it is conjecture and stylisation for effect, many times anti-christian effect.
For example, there is no evidence that Christians destroyed books in Alexandria although we do know that they did destroy pagan symbols and idols.
You will come away from the film thinking that St Cyril was involved in the death of Hypatia. There is no evidence that Cyril had anything to do with the death of Hypatia. The monk that attacked Orestes was executed, Cyril may have had the same fate had Orestes thought he was involved in his mentor and advisor's heinous murder.
Many people say this is just a story for a film but unfortunately that is not the case here. In parts, it is cleverly misleading regarding historical events.
I gave it 4 stars because it is a great film to watch, research its historical setting and discuss with interested parties - beats a lot of the Hollywood junk out there.
I watched this last evening and was quite taken back by the scale of the production. There has been much analysis elsewhere so I will cut to the chase. Whilst essentially a love story, albeit unrequited set against the backdrop of inter religious strife taking place at the end of the Roman Empire in 4th Century Alexandria, it is so much more. A visual feast and great entertainment are examples of what that 'more' is.
Hypatia is the very real philosopher, astronomer and teacher at Alexandria's famous library. She is a beacon of light and reason in a world leaning increasingly toward religious fanaticism. Her star (and rich) leading pupil is in love with her as is her trusty slave. This all takes place as the Pagans turn on the Christians who fight back and then the Christians turn on the Jews, who fight back and then pretty much everyone turns on Hypatia.
The film is sumptuously decked and presented; you really do feel that no expense has been spared and that probably quite a lot of excellent footage ended up on the cutting room floor. However, the film does not suffer for that, the CGI is top rate and the recreation of 4th Century Alexandria must have been a labour of love, the acting is engrossing which always means that all the elements of a good yarn have come together to get you hooked. And I admit I was hooked very early on. This film is a rollicking rollercoaster from start to finish and definitely deserved more attention that it got on being first released.
So why 4 stars and not 5, well it does deserve 5 stars but I have to agree with historical criticisms that can genuinely upset some people. The portrayal of all religion as destructive, even deceitful comes across fairly strong almost from the start and apart from the violence is the only constant thread running through out this work - whilst I tend to agree with this it once again can put some people off and hence I can see why some have given unduly low ratings. That said if you approach this as film using a story from history to enlighten and entertain then I am sure you will find this a deserving and rewarding film that has been woefully neglected.
on 11 June 2011
I absolutely loved this film. The sets were amazing, as were the actors and storyline. An incredibly moving story about a woman passionate about science and teaching in a mans world, while being faught for by 2 men.. Be warned its a weeper haha
Set in the 4th century city of Alexandria, in the Roman Empire just before its split in to two separate Empires.
The narrative revolves around the Greek philosopher Hypatia (a teacher at the Platonic school) where the future elite are educated. Her story is told against the back ground of a Roman Empire running out `steam', and is turning rapidly from Paganism to the early form of Christianity .The metamorphosis of the relatively new religion is neither pain less or consequence free. Religious tolerance seems non-existent, from this new faith. In turn the Pagans either convert on mass and the few who remain try to keep a low profile. The Christians then turn their attention to the Jews, and soon they come into conflict, committing violent acts against each other. The majority soon prevail, with the Christians ultimately wresting power from the only other religious group remaining. During this time of changed which at times are punctuated by a years of peace our philosopher Hypatia, continues with her quest for knowledge. However, her study of heliocentrism, is not permitted by the new faith and soon she has to focus on working privately on her theories and experiments.
Heliocentrism is the study of `astronomical model' in which the Earth and planets revolve around a stationary Sun at the centre of the solar system. This type of study was at odds with the accepted theory that all heavenly bodies, including the Sun, revolved around the Earth, the Earth was the centre of all things. While film is based on key main events in the Historical record, the narrative, the characterizations are fictional. The colour and iconography are rich and sumptuous, and remind me of such classic films as Ben-Hur or the Ten Commandments.
This review does not wish to give away plot themes and the narrative that encompasses this rather fictionalized view of a rather extraordinary person who was ahead of her time by nearly 500 years plus, both as an accomplished scientist and women who was not abashed in speaking her mind in the company of men, these men being the elite of Alexandria in their own home patch. This then brings Hypatia into conflict as it is believed that she is the cause of strained relations between Orestes (a former pupil who loves her and values her intellect), the Imperial Roman Prefect, and the Patriarch Cyril, thus she attracted the hatred of the Christians of Alexandria, who wanted the politician and the priest to reconcile. One day, in March AD 415, during Lent, a Christian mob of Nitrian monks, way lay, attack and finally kill what they perceive is a Witch of the worst kind.
I do not believe this film is anti Christian and for that matter nor is it anti religion. As one reviewer has puts it, the film is about `fanaticism and unreason'. Well I see the threads here that may lead to this inclination. However, for me I felt it was more about power play and influence, the religious conflict etc. are the tools of the conflict, at the end of the day it was about power and who has it. The same is true in today's world.
That said it's a film worth seeing, a beautiful but sad story worthy of 5 stars
The setting is Alexandra, Egypt of 391 A.D., and the pagan ruling class has seen an influx in the number of followers of Jesus Christ within city walls. Initially they constitute a minority, and the astronomical theories of Ptolemy, as taught by the respected philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), are among the many pursuits of scientific knowledge that remain the dominant mode of thinking. But as the number and influence of Christians increase, outbreaks of violence in Agora square become common, a standoff forces the Roman Emperor to choose sides. Amidst the tense action, a fourth century slave, played convincingly by Max Minghella, is confronted with his love for his intellectual alchemist master, Hypatia of Alexandria, and the temptations of freedom spurred by the rise of Christianity in this historical epic from acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar.
No expense has been spared in building a rich, three-dimensional recreation of Alexandria, teeming with thousands of extras. As Hypatia, Rachel Weisz gives an assured performance with the intentional mix of classical and current sensibilities. If viewers can see through to the deeper themes of tolerance and compassion, or simply want to experience the awe of this enriching spectacle, Agora is sure to encapsulate and enthral all audiences.