28 February 2011

Movies: Agora

Agora http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1186830/

An historical drama about the final years of the life of Hypatia of Alexandria set within the context of the Christianization of Alexandria at that time.  It stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia,  a teacher of philosophy and astronomy in Alexandria until she was killed by a christian mob in 415 AD.

Yes it is a fictionalized historical drama that starts at about the time just before the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum and it's library, per order of Emperor Theodosius in 391 AD,  through her death. Only so much is known from the recorded histories, so the rest was filled in to make a coherent story.  However the film did weave documented people and events in the fictionalization.  And, to no surprise, there were criticisms about the accuracy of how some events were portrayed in a fictionalized historical drama.

For a realistic immersive filming experience extensive sets were constructed in Malta and CGI was used sparingly. To my inexpert and ignorant eyes the sets and costuming looked good - they portrayed a city that was not only a mix of multiple cultural influences (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, desert nomadic), but a city at a turning point in history.  Rachel Weisz delivered a stirring performance, and she had a great supporting cast.  If there were any weaknesses in dialog or plotting I didn't notice any. Then again I was completely enthralled watching this drama unfold from start to finish. 

Note that there are a few brutal scenes, but they are necessary to the story, and sadly the last one is necessary to reflect recorded history.  Thankfully some detail was left to the imagination, a graphic portrayal would have been too much.

Part of the story shows Hypatia developing an analysis of the at-the-time accepted Ptolemic geocentric universe theory  vs. the possibility of a heliocentric universe theory --  first proposed by Aristarchus in 3rd century B.C.  Yes, the heliocentric solar system later elaborated upon by Copernicus and Kepler in 16th century A.D.  But I don't want to go into theories as to why it took over 18 centuries to go from Aristarchus to Kepler. I'm sure the wanton destruction of libraries and suppression of knowledge that conflicts with the ignorant fantasies of desert nomads had nothing to do with it. 

But, moreso, her geocentric / heliocentric analysis is portrayed to take place in parallel with the events that unfold in the movie. Did Hypatia's astronomical work actually take place as portrayed? Probably not, but it really doesn't matter. I perceived that ongoing discussion to be an allegorical contrast of philosophical and scientific advancement against the christian mob's destruction of the Serapeum and library, the forced conversion of remaining pagans in Alexandria to Christianity, the christians driving the Jews out of Alexandria, and their ultimate misogynistic targeting of Hypatia in the end. 
The allegorical is further embellished by the film's occasional "zooming in" from an outer space POV of the Earth down to the city, and vice versa. It helps the viewer see what's happening in perspective. The perspective that the when the whole world seems to revolve around events in this one place, from the point of view of the universe the world is but a speck the a seemingly infinite cosmos, and exactly how consequential are the actions of little specks on the surface of that speck?

Is the movie supposed to teach history the way a documentary would? No. But I took it as an opportunity to do a little light reading on the events portrayed and the people involved to fill in the gaps the movie didn't/couldn't cover.  And that's a good thing about fictionalized historical dramas - they can inspire viewers to learn more about what they just watched, they can inspire dialog about the history. 

The writer/director, Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar, said, "It's a movie that challenges the audience in terms of reasoning and trying to get into the story. I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie." 

I really enjoyed the movie and it's a shame it didn't get better marketing. I was rather surprised to see it was distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment, because lately it seems like Lionsgate has tended to give us horror/thriller and scifi/fantasy genre films moreso than historical dramas. But I'm glad they did, because this is a movie worth watching.

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Edit March 2012 :
I've watched this film about four more times since my first viewing in Feb 2011. There's just something about it that keeps me coming back to it.

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