Friday, September 30, 2011


Movie Review : Agora
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Genre : History / Drama
Released : 2009
Starring : Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I have always yearned for movies based on the lives of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. Not all highly intellectual persons are whimsical, nor are their life stories boring. Quite contrary. Their stories are not as well known as those of kings and queens, and are often full of struggles and dramatic elements. Especially tragedy, which was always a strong possibility if the thinker was living in a society controlled by religious extremism.

Such is the story of Hypatia, perhaps the last woman scholar of antiquity, and around whose life the movie Agora is built. A bit of historical context might be helpful to understand and appreciate the movie.

Hypatia lived in 3rd - 4th century Alexandria, in Egypt. She was of Greek origin. Most Greeks and Romans in Alexandria were pagan. She probably was not religious, and was more devoted to science and philosophy. It was not uncommon in Egyptian society - especially in Alexandria - for women to have almost the same rights as men. Hypatia was a well-known scholar, a very well respected teacher and almost universally admired. Agora means a place for public assembly. In this case, the library hall, where Hypatia taught.

Alexandria was always a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city ever since Alexander the Great established it. With the growing strength of Christianity, it also became a multi-religious society. This led to religious friction, which led to extremism and violent conflicts. During such times, intelligent, outspoken and respected women like Hypatia are considered threats by extremist men who want to grab power in the name of religion. Hypatia was lynched by a Christian mob in a most brutal fashion.

The movie picks up the story when trouble had just started brewing in Alexandria. It is not a story of Hypatia. It is a story of a city in transition. This choice allows the director to reconstruct every detail of how life was and how it changed. This turned out to be a mixed bag. The city life is magnificently reconstructed with clever techniques. While the political drama and mob violence is effectively portrayed, the central figure of the story, Hypatia, is a bit under-developed. It just doesn't feel complete. This is a fault of the script. Rachel Weisz, who won Oscar for The Constant Gardener, does a superb job as Hypatia. Other actors are not as well known. You might recognize Max Minghella (as Davus) who played Divya Narendra in The Social Network).

This is a movie based on good research of historical facts and tries very hard to remain accurate and fair. The pagans, the Jews and the Christians are all depicted without any bias. Among the graphic scenes of carnage, there are also moments of thoughtful reflection. Of course, the director has every right to take some artistic freedom and Hypatia's research is definitely fiction. It is not known if she really knew if the Earth revolved around the Sun or if the orbits were elliptical. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't.

This is a good movie. If you don't know much about the history of that period, you will definitely enjoy it. If you are just interested in watching well-directed movies, this fits the bill too. It is definitely not for kids.

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