Re:View – ‘Agora’

Film, The Arts

The cinema of ideas seems doomed to fail these days. I’m not entirely surprised, then, that this astonishing big-budget film about the death of intelligence and the birth of religious extremism flopped at the box office.

It tells the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, and recounts one of the greatest acts of vandalism in history, the destruction of the great library at Alexandria by Christians. It goes against the current unthinking growth of extremism, and acts as a dire warning about the loss we face.

Rachel Weisz is Hypatia, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and atheist who lived in the ascension of Christianity, the death of the Roman Empire and the start of the Dark Ages, when all learning was destroyed by religion and the intellectual development of humankind was set back centuries.

Caught between the attentions of her former slave and her pupil, trying to understand the order of the heavens, she is blind to the chaos around her into which the world is slipping. Alexandro Amenabar creates the all-too-believable rise of ignorance, framing his shots so that they seem like frescoes and paintings, then setting his locations against the unknowable vastness of the universe.

This s a film about the failure of society to question what it believes, framed in the style of ‘Ben Hur’, that bombastic epic which did the opposite. Intelligent, gripping filmmaking, it deserved Oscars – and a better fate than the snide reviews of critics who couldn’t handle a modern-day Roman epic, and the blinkered philistinism of the Far Right.

‘Agora’ is bravura, heartbreaking stuff. A dark film for dark times, indeed.

6 comments on “Re:View – ‘Agora’”

  1. Steve says:

    We watched this on video and it literally gave my wife nightmares. Now that’s an effective film. The most frightening thing about it is that it proves once again that, in some rather awful respects, not much has changed in nearly 2,000 years.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    It’s too bad that quiet lives of faith don’t make for television or books. There isn’t confrontation, I guess. Either that or the characters are turned into soggy sweet marshmallows with no content to admire. Please don’t suggest that the wholesale destruction that created the so-called Dark Ages was solely the result of the power of the church. There is a sequencing in these things and the Roman Empire’s rulers were as much to blame as anyone, to say nothing of the Vandals (where did that name come from?), Goths and Visi-Goths who did the actual destroying. Ooops, I’m ranting again.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I’d like to see the film, though, because the destruction of the Library is vandalism of the worst sort and Hypatia was important.

  4. Steve says:

    Um…I don’t know about Chris, but I certainly wasn’t suggesting that. I’m a bit too aware of history to take that tack. The Romans are shown to be quite as much at fault in the movie. You really should see it.

  5. FLJustice says:

    I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. The film was beautifully shot and a bit uneven. Amenabar also distorted 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 go to the movies for entertainment, not 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.

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