Agora (2010)

Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella
Studio: Canal+/New Market Films/Lionsgate [10/19/10]
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 1080p HD
Audio: English DD 5.1 & 2.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish

Extras: Director’s commentary track, Director intro, “Journey to Alexandria” documentary, Deleted scenes, Storyboards, Photo gallery (most of extras are in Spanish with English subtitles available)

Length: 127 minutes

Rating: *****

Don’t know how this magnificent epic seems to have gone direct to DVD without having been in the theaters – at least in my area. Perhaps it did better in Europe in theaters, featuring a wide variety of nationalities, covering some fascinating Old World history, and having been shot on the island of Malta.

The skilled young Spanish director is crazy about astronomy and originally wanted to make a bio film on the important fourth century A.D. Roman female philosopher/mathematician/ astronomer Hypatia, but it expanded into a sprawling epic. It dealt with Hypatia’s fascination with the heavens and how they worked, and her enhancement of the Greek Aristarchus’ early theory of the heliocentric solar system by adding elliptical orbits for planets to explain why the sun seemed to change in size over the seasons. (It wasn’t until Copernicus in the 16th century that these ideas came to the fore again.) But that would be rather dry in a film if it were not for Amenabar taking us back in time – visually and dramatically – to fourth century Alexandria, Egypt, which was like the Paris of the period, and boasted the world’s largest library at the time. The agora was the open place of assembly near the library (the word agoraphobia drives from its meaning as a crowd gathering place). Alexandria had an extremely diverse population and seemed to thrive as a center for learning, though the European part of the Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart.

Hypatia was a teacher with a group of devoted students. She moved about freely and had her own chariot, and thru her friend and former student Orestes, the governor, she exerted much political influence in the city. There were many clashes between the newly-legal Christians (including pagan Romans who had converted for business reasons) and the remaining pagans.  Later the Jewish population increased and at one point Christian fanatics slaughtered them and their leader Cyril expelled the rest. He later became a Catholic saint.  The Ceasar in Rome decreed that the Christians could take over the library – which had been kept by the pagans – and do whatever they liked with it. So they trashed it. Hypatia was a threat to Cyril for her experimental heretical teachings and refusing to become a Christian. Obviously a woman who didn’t “know her place.”  His fanatical monks attacked Hypatia as she drove thru Alexandria and tore her apart, and according to at least one history, they also murdered Orestes for his support of her and his opposition to them, though these are not shown in the film.    Her stoning is shown, with her faithful slave returning to soften the blow by first suffocating her.

The destruction of the scrolls and statues in the Alexandria library by the marauding Christian monks is one of the more violent scenes. The realism of the buildings in the film is most effective.  As is the background of the city as seen from the hill on which the library was situated. The famous Pharos lighthouse is shown in the distance – which remained standing until the 13th century. Though there were budget constraints, this was still a $75 million production. Money was saved by creating a computer simulation of the entire film in advance – the modern visualization equivalent of Hitchcock’s detailed storyboards.  Hypatia’s story has been pieced together from a few letters and quotes, because its wreckage by the Christian fanatics was followed in 642 by the library containing her works being burned by Arab conquerors.

There is a sort of love story to the plot, but it’s not like Hollywood films where the whole thing revolves around that.  Hypatia is lusted after by both Orestes and her young slave (whom she later frees) but astronomy is her only real love.  The Roman rulings that led to her death spelled the beginnings of ruin and decay for the Empire and Alexandria as well, as the ancient ways are destroyed. This is a wonderfully thoughtful and intelligent feature that seems head and shoulders above every Hollywood Egyptian epic. The script was obviously carefully researched and designed. The documentary points out that the various actors came from just as diverse backgrounds and beliefs as the characters in ancient Alexandria. Rachel Weisz is superb as Hypatia.

The excellent cinematography has transferred well to DVD and the buildings, artworks and costumes seem highly believable. In the extras the Italian costume director mentions that she used the sleeveless outfits of the Taliban as models for her Christian monk outfits. Hypatia refused to dress like a woman of the times; she wears white and bright colors early in the film, changing to darker hues as things turn against her towards the end.  For the destruction of the Roman statues and columns the mockups were designed to break up in certain ways for most realistic effect; I gather these were one-take situations. The quite long documentary in the extras is one of the best of the sort that I have seen. Both it and the feature itself could well provoke further interest and research by all who see the film.

 — John Sunier
 

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