Sunday, July 25, 2010


Hypatia is one of those historical characters nobody knows much about (and many of us have never heard of) hence there is plenty of scope for the scriptwriters to be imaginative. She was an academic in Alexandria in late Roman empire, who was murdered in 415AD. At that time Alexandria was still one of the academic centres of the Roman Empire (a hang over from the hay day when its Library was world famous). Agora (which sounds more exotic than "Town Square") covers a period in history that is rarely covered by film. The time when Christianity moves from being a minor (and persecuted) religion to being the state religion, and thence starts exercising political power.

There are ingredients here for two movies: the story of how Christianity evolved and the story of a woman who becomes an academic, seeks to maintain her self determination and then faces religious persecution. Unfortunately it is not clear which movie Agora is trying to be.

The evolution of Christianity is described in terms of its consequences for others around them. The appeal of Christianity to the poor and slaves through its ideas of all men being equal and through its charity work is very briefly dealt with, similarly the phase where people join, out of convenience or fear because Christianity has become the most powerful game in town is also briefly dealt with. But why people converted during the phase in between these two is skipped. The Christians (and in fact all the religious groups) are mostly depicted as a mob, with their leaders depicted as one dimensional power hungry men of action. It feels like one of those B-movie or TV programs where bad guys are just bad because they are evil and they exist only to be eventually defeated by the good guys. Except here one of the groups of bad guys defeat all the others.

The story of Hypatia is not a story of evolution, she seems to be the one constant. She is doing and saying the same things at the end of the film as she does at the beginning, while all around her major social changes are taking place. She (Rachel Weisz) doesn't seem to age either. The boys she taught grow up and become men, but she seems to remain that ambiguously aged beautiful woman to the end. There is a love triangle involving Orestes (one of her pupils) and Davus (one of her slaves). But it is so under played (Hypatia seems not to notice those who adore her) that at times it is not clear if Davus in particular loves her or hates her.

It seems like a lot of money was spent on making this lavish film about an unusual woman living at a very interesting time in history. It is not clear to me if this is supposed to be a film about Hypatia or about an interesting, but usually ignored, era in the history of Christianity. The film concentrates too much on the events happening around Hypatia, and she is too passive and unchanging to be a story about her. The Christian characters are barely more than names and centre of the story is too far removed them for Christianity to be the centre of the film. It is a pity because the sets and costumes are excellent and there is nothing wrong with the actors. On the other hand I wasn't bored and I have had plenty to think about afterwards. For instance, researching for this review I found that historians disagree on when the great library at Alexandria was destroyed, giving four possible dates: 48BC, 273AD, 391AD or 642AD.

In case you are wondering if this is an anti-Christian film. I don't think it is. Several religions have gone through the same evolution from persecuted to persecutor. Islam did it 300 or so years after Hypatia died. Jews have gone through it more than once, most spectacularly in the 1940s. Non-religious groups have also gone through this metamorphosis, so I think it is a more general human phenomena.

You have to admire the film makers for having the balls to star Rachel Weisz in a serious film set in Egypt.

Ian's rating 2.5/5
Anne's rating 2.5/5

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