Opening 11 Mar 2010
Settle back to observe a rich reconstruction of Alexandria, Egypt, in 391 A.D. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is the only woman to teach at the famous Agora cultural center and library. Perhaps she owes this position to her father, Theon, the last person to manage the library before its destruction. Still, as a highly intelligent, thinking person, she is the best they have and her students revere her. Some, such as Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and even her slave Davus (Max Minghella), love her. She teaches math and astronomy and observes the solar system long before Copernicus and Galileo. Soon she cannot work in peace because a growing group of Christians challenges the liberal, international scene of the city, which makes life impossible, if not even dangerous. They aim to destroy property and the old code of morality. This enables slaves, such as Davos (who became an educated man by listening to Hypatia’s lectures), to rise above their status and take on high positions with such Christian groups as the Parabolani, which first help the poor and sick, and later become moral watchdogs with an eye out for misbehaviour according to the rules of the church.
Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar is amazing, considering that this, his fifth film, is completely different from his previous ones such as The Sea Inside, The Others, or Open Your Eyes. He is especially amazing considering that he actually failed film school and is an autodidact both in writing and directing and in composing music (although in this film he leaves the music up to Dario Marianelli, who won a music Oscar for Atonement). He has drawn upon several experts to recreate Alexandria exactly as it was 1600 years ago. The wealthy intellectuals wear light-colored clothing; the Christians dark colors. Amenábar says, “From the beginning my goal was to give the viewer the feeling of actually being there, or watching a CNN team recording Breaking News. Alexandria was the center of intellectual learning. People came from far away to study and discuss theater, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Then, during Hypatia’s lifetime (she was a real person), Alexandria became more and more a part of the Roman Empire and fell under Christian rule. This marks the beginning of the “dark times” or the Middle Ages, as the Christians, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, destroyed much which was irreplaceable.
Besides the detailed set and photography of a place long gone, I especially appreciated learning about life at the end of 300 A.D., most of all because it made me realize that there is not much difference from life in the 20th century or even now in 2010. As Amenábar pointed out, it just takes one group to set up new regulations and suddenly another group is ostracized, much like the German Jews in 1930. The future looks pessimistic, simply because so far nothing has changed and so much is destroyed. As Amenábar said, “Probably if we had not lost the Alexandria library, we would have civilized Mars by now.”
The actual storyline is not as important or
even as interesting as its historical implication and the chance to learn
something new. Agora showed at both the Cannes and the Toronto
film festivals in 2009. (Becky Tan)