from CARNEGIE, PA
Reviewed on 2/10/2011...
Great movie with lots of historical facts but enjoyable too.
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(Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY
Reviewed on 11/14/2010...
Hagiography of 4th Century Philosopher Scientist held up as corrective to religious fundamentalism
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With 'Agora', Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar has taken on a subject that has not been done before in the movies: the story of Hypatia, 4th century Alexandrian astronomer-philosopher, a woman way ahead of her time. Little is known about the historical Hypatia so Amenabar also depicts the political situation in Alexandria: the internecine struggle between a besieged Roman pagan culture and ascendant Christians. A fantastic set was constructed on the island of Malta along with digital effects added later on that recreates ancient Alexandria. Coupled with some excellent work on the part of the film's costume designer, the result is an impressive verisimilitude. Quibblers might object to the use of candles and glass windows but as the director points out in a special features DVD interview, there is considerable disagreement amongst historians as to whether those and other materials were in use at that particular period in history.
Amenabar's main problem is that his protagonist is for the most part not an active agent in the external arc of the story. It's established early on that she rejects the love interests of both Davus, her soon to be freed slave and convert to Christianity and Orestes, the pagan nobleman who later becomes the prefect of Alexandria. In a scene based on a true story, she hands Orestes (at the beginning of the film, a student of Hypatia), a handkerchief soaked with blood from her menstrual cycle and makes it clear that she has no interest in future sexual relationships. Her interest is furthering her career in philosophy and astronomy. The focus thus is on Hypatia's internal arc, as she struggles to replace Ptolemy's erroneous geocentric conception of the universe with a heliocentric model. Amenabar informs us that he wanted 'Agora' to be, in part, a tribute to astronomy and physics. This is unfortunate because the many scenes that focus on Hypatia totally lack suspense. We KNOW basically that she'll come up with the right answer in regards to her astronomical quandaries, so no matter how many circles are drawn in the sand, the viewer is reminded more of a History Channel documentary than scenes from a flesh and blood drama.
In contrast to most Biblical epics, Amendabar turns his Christians into the bad guys and now the Pagans, represented by the rational and humanistic Hypatia, are the enlightened. The Christians become stand-ins for today's fundamentalists. We learn from the DVD documentary that the costume designer based the costumes of the Parabalani (the Christian Brotherhood who are depicted here as bad guy enforcers for the local Patriarch) on the Taliban. Amendabar intentionally has the Christians all dressed in a dark gray and the pagans in white.
Amendabar claims that the film is not meant to be anti-Christian and he emphasizes that the violence in the opening scenes is clearly instigated by the pagans. On the other hand, the Christians' rising militancy is ably depicted in the character of Ammonius who challenges a pagan to walk over some burning coals (this supposedly was based on a true story). When the pagan hesitates, the crowd throws him into the fire and he's almost burned to death. Amendabar then awkwardly inserts a scene that's designed to depict the 'good' side of the Christian mission—the soldiers are directed to give bread to the poor. But it's not enough—before you know it, the 'fundamentalist' Christians are throwing Jews out the windows of their apartments (a la Schindler's List) and stoning poor Hypatia to death much in the manner of today's Tablian. Despite his claims to the contrary, Amendabar appears to take some satisfaction in having his Christians get their comeuppance. He even has "Saint" Cyril, the bad guy Alexandrian Patriarch, read an misogynistic passage from the Book of Timothy as a prelude to his order that Hypatia renounce her 'faith'.
Given all the sappy pro-Christian Biblical epics we've had to endure over the years, a corrective in the other direction might not be such a bad thing after all. Amendabar has provided a service in depicting true historical events where once oppressed Christians now attain power and become as bad as their former pagan oppressors. But that's really all Amendabar has provided: a history lesson! I think what's missing is some basic character development. Somehow I have the feeling that Cyril was a little more complicated than the sinister Fundamentalist stand-in depicted here.
Amendabar fails to rise above hagiography in his telling of the Hypatia story. The short scene where she reminds Davus that he's still a slave during the pagan evacuation of the city is not enough to humanize his protagonist. Amendabar ends up being just as guilty as the Christians he derides when he turns Hypatia into a martyr of western rationalism. Even the 'good' Christians are ineffectual or downright hypocritical. Spineless Orestes falls to his knees in front of Synesius, symbolizing the complete capitulation of the pagan world to Christianity and Synesius can only mumble platitudes about God as he basically condones Hypatia's death sentence.
In the end, science and 'reason' are Amendabar's good guys and promoters of 'faith' are the bad guys. The virtually all virtuous Hypatia stands in stark relief to the world's religions which are blamed for the spread of fundamentalism. 4th Century Christians are not only stand-ins for modern day Islamic fundamentalists but the basic tenets of Christianity, based on an anti-Semitic creed, is linked to the horrors of the Holocaust. Even the Jews (albeit seen less culpable here than the Christians and the Muslims) commit atrocities in the name of religion.
Amendabar still manages to show restraint in some scenes. Particularly admirable is that he protects his audience from experiencing the full horror of Hypatia's execution (in history she's skinned alive; here, Davus, her former slave, suffocates her in order to prevent her further suffering).
Agora is good as a basic history lesson. But its simplistic depiction of the supremacy of reason over religious fundamentalism doesn't ring quite true.
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