This week's movie rental was Agora, a 2009 historical drama starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro Amenábar (The Sea Inside).
The story is set in 4th century Alexandria (the movie was filmed in Malta) and tells of three things: 1) the building tensions between the Pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants of the city which (may have) led to the burning of the library of Alexandria; 2) the power struggle between the governing Roman prefect, Orestes and the Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril; and 3) the life and death of Hypatia, a Greek astronomer and philosopher.
- Hypatia teaching her class
I like ancient history and science so the movie was interesting for me. The characters were pretty well done, not one-dimensional, although I have to say I didn't especially like Hypatia - she could think outside the box when it came to science but it never seemed to occur to her that enslaving others was ethically questionable. The film did have some really arresting visual images, including a beautiful satellite view of Alexandria, some great costumes, and neat architecture. Still, all in all, I found it rather grim ... never have I seen so many people stoned, and I don't mean in the recreational-drug sense of the word ... what got me down was the self-righteous cruelty and brutality of the members of all three religions portrayed: I'd be tempted to think Richard Dawkins produced the film :) but I'm afraid that instead the movie just brings to light the sad truth that human nature can take even what's inherently good and mess it up.
The movie was scathingly reviewed in the Catholic press because it dwells on a creepy Cyril and on the murder of Hypatia by a Christian mob. Historically, though, it's hard to get around these two things. Hypatia does seem to have been murdered by Christians, though whether because she was a Pagan female in science or because she got in the way between Cyril and Orestes, is hard to say. And as Wikipedia states of Cyril ....
Cyril is counted among the Church Fathers and the Doctors of the Church .... but Theodosius II, the Roman Emperor, condemned him for behaving like a proud pharaoh, and the Nestorian bishops at the Council of Ephesus declared him a heretic, labelling him as a "monster, born and educated for the destruction of the church". Cyril is controversial because of his involvement in the expulsion of Novatians and Jews from Alexandria and the murder of the hellenistic philosopher Hypatia. Historians disagree over the extent of his responsibility for these events.
Here's just the beginning of a review of the film by Roger Ebert, who gave it three out of four stars ....
BY ROGER EBERT / July 21, 2010
I went to see "Agora" expecting an epic with swords, sandals and sex. I found swords and sandals, some unexpected opinions about sex, and a great deal more. This is a movie about ideas, a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition. At its center is a woman who in the fourth century A.D. was a scientist, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher, respected in Egypt, although women were not expected to be any of those things.
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) was born into the family business. Her father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) was the curator of the Library of Alexandria, which had as its mission "collecting all the world's knowledge." Scholars traveled there from across the ancient world, doing research and donating manuscripts. It was destroyed by Christians in 391 A.D., and "Agora" takes place in the years surrounding that incalculable loss ........