NOTE: I submitted this piece to the Gilded Serpent online magazine but it’s been a while and they haven’t put it up. Thus I thought I would post it on my blog while it’s still current. If the G.S. puts it up, I’ll take this entry off my blog. The movie is now on DVD.
Movie Review: AGORA
On my way to my Hawaii retreat last January, I read a magazine article that a new movie was coming
out about “Hypatia”. How exciting; I couldn’t wait! I love movies that take me back to ancient times and especially Ancient Egypt. This was perfect timing for inspiration because this coming spring, I am leading a tour to Egypt and the city of Alexandria is one of our prime destinations. This is where the historic tale takes place.
I suppose my entire inspiration for belly dance as a teenager was motivated by those old biblical-era movies like “Cleopatra”, “The Egyptian”, “Samson and Delilah”, and “The Robe”. . . The costumes and atmosphere completely captivated my imagination. There hasn’t been a good one in a long time, save for the HBO TV series “Rome” that was totally amazing (more on that another time).
So I was keeping an eye half peeled all year for the movie. I occasionally asked people about if they had seen a movie called Hypatia, and they just shirked and said they hadn’t even heard of her.
Anyone interested in woman’s studies would, I hope, know Hypatia.
Hypatia (370-415 AD) was a famous Greek Philosopher, Astronomer and Mathematician from Alexandria, Egypt, who was famous for her eloquence and education. She was a teacher and advisor to many important pagans, Romans, Christians and Jews alike. The story that always follows her name throughout history is how she was brutally murderers by a rabid mob of Christians incited by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. In fiendish detail she was seized while riding in her chariot, stripped naked and then skinned alive by scraping the flesh from her bones with oyster shells and set afire. Yikes! What did she do? She was said to create religious turmoil by scientific reasoning. (Oh my Goddess, this could have been me!)
I came to find out the movie wasn’t called “Hypatia” but was in fact named “Agora”. Why they choose that name is unfortunate; I think more people would have seen the movie upon its release had it been called “Hypatia”. But it’s not too late! Check it out on Netflix. And it’s not the full story. Although the movie did very well in other countries, because of what was perceived as anti-Catholic overtones, it didn’t get an American distributor until just recently.
“Agora” is the Greek word meaning the center of the city where people meet. This movie is full of where things are meeting: science, religions, astronomy, and human history, tragedy and loss.
The movie takes place in around 370-415 AD. – many years after Jesus – during the rise of Christianity which causes complex tensions. From the accounts of people from many lands, Alexandria at this time in history had a reputation for public volatility. The people would apparently fly off the handle as the slightest thing and tear up the city (making any of us a bit agoraphobic). The city was originally founded by Alexander the Great and established as a place of great learning. The Alexandria Library was burned before this time. The library they are depicting in the movie is the “daughter library” in the temple of Serapis.
The film stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia. The movie was made by a Spanish film company with English speaking actors, and was directed by Alijandro Amenabar (born in Chile). The movie was made without CGI. All the sets were hand-built and installed in Malta, much like the making of HBO’s “Rome”. Its budget was a mere 50 million dollars which in movie terms is a shoe string. Each scene is like stepping into an Orientalist painting. The lighting is especially heavenly. Everyone was committed to the project; they did a great job.
At the start, I was a bit repelled by the film because it’s kind of noisy, and I have to be in the mood for noise. However, I have watched it at least 5 times now. I understand the reason for my visceral response. Agora is very textural. It’s the noise of chaos during this time in history as viewed from the quiet cosmos. The population looks like ants crawling on the bones of the city. It takes us to the silence of space and the grandeur of our planet that is home to the passing clouds of history activity.
I love that the film takes us back and forth from aerial views of the Arabian Peninsula and drops us down into the time and place of Alexandria, Egypt 391 AD. That beacon of light brought people from all lands to a city that was a pivotal point of historic change. The clash was between the fading past glory of intellectual thought which Alexandria represented, and the coming of the new faith allegiance to the One God. It was the end of a time and place where women like Hypatia and Cleopatra could write books and be philosophers, mathematicians, and scholars, and was the beginning of the long onslaught of human history where women would occupy a very subordinate role for centuries to come.
Other reviewers seem to like the movie but argue some historic points, which I think are pretty minimal (from what I read after seeing the movie). It is a movie after all. It is about a time none of us were around for but have stereotypic ideas blazoned into our minds without much question. Dare we question? This questioning is what Hypatia symbolizes in the movie over-all. The director chose to reverse some of these stereotypes and portray Christians as fanatics and more human and fallible than divine. The Jews stone the Christians…
I was surprised once more that this would be a film about science. Science moves me the same way as belly dance does. This was Hypatia’s unquenchable passion to know the answers which she chose to explore beyond love and family. I liked that she represents more options for women. I kind of wished I had gone into science as a career. Hypatia may still inspire me. One day I want to write a book called The Cosmology of Belly Dance because I see mirrored in our dance so much science and physics by the mere use of things like vibration, rotation and wave patterns (again more later).
When I saw the DVD extras about the making of this movie I was again deeply moved. It was created by a team of talented visionaries that all fell in love with Hypatia. I love what this director chos to do with the script. Rachel Weisz plays her well. When it comes to herstoric record, Hypatia deserves more meat on her bones. This movie is her tribute.
Now if they would just make a movie about the novel, ” THE RED TENT” !
323 BC: Death of Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Hellenistic Age. During his lifetime he establishes the city of Alexandria as one of many towns he set up to establish Greek Culture.
320 BC: Sarapis is a syncretic Hellenistic -Egyptian God in Antiquity. Even though Sapapis is older this God comes into prominence after the death of Alexander the Great 320 BC. It is introduced to Alexandria as a patron deity to unite Egyptian and Greek populations. He combines attributes of both cultures’ past deities. On his head he has a grain measure, in his hand a staff. He is said to be Osiris in full but he looks like a Greek Zeus and Hades. Symbols are the Apis bull, serpent, and crescent moon.
280 BC: The famed Alexandrian light house is built.
260 BC” There were reported to be 500,000 scrolls in the library at Alexandria. The catalog is 120 scrolls. There are reports of what the library contained: cosmology, mathematics, physics, natural science, philosophy and more. It is said to house the original worksof Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
69 BC: Cleopatra VII is born in Alexandria.
48 BC: Julius Caesar meets 21 year old Cleopatra and is said to have accidently burned the Great Library of Alexandria down when he set fire to ships in the harbor. Caesar gives Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls plundered from the library at Pargamum as a gift and put in the “daughter library” which is the Serapheum; the temple of Serapis.
30 BC: Cleopatra dies 30 years before the birth of Jesus .
370-415 AD: The lifetime of Hypatia; philosopher, mathematician, astronomer.
390 AD: Christianity is made the official religion of Rome.
391 AD: The Serapheum is destroyed by a crowd of Christians or Roman Soldiers that were converting to Christianity.
415 AD Hypatia is murdered and becomes a martyr.
610 AD The Prophet Muhammad has his divine revelations and Islam is born.