Saturday, September 18, 2010

Agora (Rhoades)

“Agora” Sparks Public Debate
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Did anyone witness the spectacular confluence of Mars and the Moon on August 27th when the red planet looked as large as a second moon? No? That’s because those email notices you received were a hoax. The actual event took place in 2003, when Mars came within 35 million miles of earth, making it appear 6 times its size and 85 times brighter than normal.

Astronomy can be confusing for the gullible or uninitiated.

Think what it was like back in the 4th Century when philosophers debated “the motions of the Sun, the Moon, the five known Wanderers (planets) and the stars.” The Christian church did not always agree with scientific viewpoints.

In “Agora” – the historical drama now playing at the Tropic Cinema – we meet one such dissident, a mathematician and scholar named Hypatia of Alexandra. She argued a heliocentric view of the Solar System. In the end it got her killed.

In this telling, these early scholars are challenged by the upstart Christians. A teacher in the Platonic School, Hypatia (Oscar-winner Rachael Weisz) is content to educate future leaders and contemplate the universe. Sure, being an attractive woman, she has her suitors, ranging from a pupil (Oscar Isaac) to her slave (Max Minghalla), but she rejects their love in favor of remaining an independent scientist. This works for and against her in the end.

As Christianity grows, a zealous group lays siege to the Library of Serapeum, where Hypatia and her pagan cronies take refuge among the scrolls containing all the knowledge of classical antiquity. This leads to a confrontation with her former slave, now a convert for political reasons.

Later, a religious leader tries to force Hypatia to accept Christianity, but she refuses. Despite the intervention of her former pupils, now in high places, this doesn’t go down well and she’s sentenced to be stoned. But her former slave offers an alternative.

Rachael Weisz liked portraying Hypatia of Alexandra. “Really, nothing has changed,” she says. “I mean, we have huge technological advances and medical advances, but in terms of people killing each other in the name of God, fundamentalism still abounds. And in certain cultures, women are still second-class citizens, and they’re denied education.”

Oddly enough, Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar got the idea for this biopic from thinking about extraterrestrial life among the stars. Having finished filming “The Sea Within,” he retreated to Malta for some needed R&R. At night he gazed at the Milky Way and began to get interested in astronomy and the possibility of life on other star systems. He came across Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” which introduced him to such early thinkers as Ptolemy, Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. But he found the story of Hypatia the most interesting.

“We realized that this particular time in the world had a lot of connections with our contemporary reality,” says Amenábar. “Then the project became really, really intriguing, because we realized that we could make a movie about the past while actually making a movie about the present.”

The film’s title comes from the Greek word meaning an open place of assembly. The psychological term “Agoraphobia” refers to a fear of public situations and open spaces. Right now, Alejandro Amenábar is probably wishing he wasn’t in a public bulls eye. Even though he had his film reviewed for accuracy by the Vatican, some critics are calling it anti-Christian in the same way Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was viewed as anti-Jewish.

Hard to win when it comes to history.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

1 comment:

faithljustice said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorted some history in pursuit of his art. The Great Library of Alexandria didn't end as he depicted and Synesius wasn't such a jerk. However, that's what artists do. I don't go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.