Saturday, April 16, 2011

Agora- A Parrothead movie review

Starring Rachel Weisz

Someone with a better understanding and knowledge of the cinema arts will rightly disagree with me but from my perspective most movies these days seem a morass of sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes leaving little in the way of originality. Yes, I understand great movies exist like “The King’s Speech”, Schindler’s List, and others but for every one intelligent and thoughtful film seeking to explore life ten others of the lowest common denominator dominate the local multiplex.

I enjoy a good horror, action, or mindless comedy movie like everyone else but there are times I long for something that doesn’t depend on rivers of spilled co-ed blood or massive explosions blowing the bodies of generic evildoers apart to entertain or make a point. When I am lucky enough to stumble across a movie that not only enlightens something of the human condition as well as entertains I move heaven and earth to be left alone and see it before it disappears. I recently found such a movie and as usual, it was strictly by accident.

Dragonwife popped for Showtime last month because of the upcoming series on the Borgias, which meets my snobbish criteria but it was another movie showing this month that I found to be a very pleasant surprise.  Last Saturday morning while surfing the television I stopped just long enough to catch sight of the beautiful Rachael Weisz dressed in some sort of ancient Roman female attire, thoughts of Roman-era escapades passed through my largely empty brain and froze me in place. For the better it turned out to be nothing of the decadent and immoral sort but the unknown movie I found still held me in place.

Turns out Ms. Weisz was portraying the ancient real-life mathematician Hypatia, born in Roman Egypt somewhere around 350 to 370 AD. The movie is called “Agora” and while it took me a couple of days to find time to sit through the entire movie I was very satisfied when I was at last able to experience this film that, to my knowledge, went largely unappreciated.

The movie is set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt in the year 391AD with the Roman Empire in steep decline and the new Christian religion on an equally steep ascension. Hypatia is not only a mathematician but a teacher, philosopher, and astronomer puzzled by the flaws of the Ptolemaic view of the universe putting Earth at the center of everything. She knows of the heliocentric theory putting the sun at the center but she can’t overcome the discrepancies involving the strange path the “wanderers”, or other planets of the known solar system, take in the night sky.

While this is going on Hypatia is caught up in the Christianization of the decaying Roman Empire and the attentions of one her students, Orestes, who eventually becomes the Roman appointed ruler of Alexandria and her slave, Davus who is both an assistant, servant and who loves her in secret. In the backdrop of this is the lost wonder of the Library of Alexandria where she teaches and the interaction of the two men who love her come into play. Hypatia is far more interested in science and very resistant to the romantic attention of Orestes, she knows the minute she marries her rights are greatly hamstrung with her becoming subservient to any possible husband. Given that Davus is a slave Hypatia is completely oblivious to him other than as a useful tool.

At the same time conflict is slowly brewing between the pagan believers of the old Roman gods and those believe in the emerging Christian faith. When the Christians start defiling statues of the pagan gods the pagans, filled with rage, rally and attack the Christians only to be overwhelmed and retreat, taking refuge in the Library which the Christians already have a problem because of what it represents. Under siege the pagan holdup in the library until an envoy of the Emperor comes from Rome and pardons them but turns over the Library to the Christians who promptly burn it and the priceless contents inside.

Hypatia’s slave, Davus who had been flirting with the idea of becoming Christian joins them after being insulted by Hypatia who is panicking while trying to save at least some small portion of the library’s contents. In a rage Davus almost rapes his mistress but doesn’t, the aftermath in all this is that Hypatia frees and allows him to run away.

Years later Hypatia’s former student Orestes is now the ruler of Alexandria and a Christian. Hypatia is still investigating the heliocentric theory which many of the Christians ridicule along with resenting the influence she appears to have over Orestes. Alexandria is still seething with religious turmoil as the Jews and Christians now come into conflict with the Christians ultimately taking total control of the city. This sets the stage for Hypatia and the Christian leaders of the city to clash with Hypatia losing in the end.

Two things drew me into this movie, the first being that I was “introduced” to the person Hypatia years ago by Carl Sagan in his series “Cosmos.” He spoke of her brilliance and wistfully of her reported beauty, and how she was a lady thousands of years before her time. Whenever I learn of such a person in history I wonder what their intellect could accomplish. On that same note, how many Hypatias, Da Vincis, and Ben Franklins waste away now unable to develop their talents for stupid reason like lack of money for education?

The second thing that drew me into this movie was how as angry and ignorant men hacked everyone within reach to pieces over superstition, the center piece of their existences, the scene would pull away eventually showing the small blue marble we all live hanging in space all alone. For me it was a testament that most of things we humans believe and do are as inconsequential as the particles of dust drifting in the air around us. I don’t mean to attack anyone’s faith, but I find it funny that while the tenets of all major religions teach of peace, brotherhood, and love many of the followers of these faiths go out of their way to make up loopholes allowing them to slaughter unbelievers and heretics.

Needless to say I very highly recommend “Agora” and suggest you either catch it on Showtime or rent the DVD. I wish more movies like that were made and had a wider American audiences.


B.E. Earl said...

It's also available on Netflix Instant. Just added it to my queue. Thanks!

Suzan said...

Well shoot!

I knew I was really missing not having Showtime when I saw "The Borgias" with Jeremy Irons coming soon, but this is a big miss. I love these historical pieces.

Thanks for the review!

Pixel Peeper said...

This sounds interesting - I just added it to my queue on Netflix, too.

I'm currently reading a series of books that takes place about 30,000 years ago. The hero of the books is, in some ways, more enlightened and more feminist than some modern-day people. I think I will enjoy your recommendation! Thanks!

Windsmoke. said...

This is just my cup of tea there's nothing like a sand and sandal epic movie. You've got me hooked so i'll watch out for Agora when it's released in OZ :-).

Beach Bum said...

B.E.: I hope you enjoy it. Dude, I have been meaning to add you to my blogroll, will get to it ASAP.

Suzan: Its great, I got a real feel for the era and the situation. The only problem is when you boil away the stupid stuff its no different from today, just the names have changed really.

Pixel: Please tell me those books, now you have my interest.

Windsmoke: The movie actually came out in 2009, it might be in the rental stores now.

Marja said...

I great review my friend. It won me over to see this interesting movie. I love how you identified that the love and peace which is at the centre of religion is expressed in slaughtering heretics.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

Academy Award winner, Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardener"). She kind of reminds me of a brunette version of Kate Winslet and was exceedingly hot in "Constantine".

Beach Bum said...

Marja: I've always been a little New Age type but to have a bunch of people slaughtering each other only to pull away, rising up into the air until you are seeing the Earth hanging in space is really humbling.

Will: I've got to admit that while I am taking a bit of a highbrow stand on this movie Rachel is simply hot.

Lowandslow said...

I may hve to check it out on Netflix, too. Thanks for the heads up.


TRUTH 101 said...

In a rare moment of seriousness these days I have to rank the destruction of the Library at Alexandria among the greatest tragedies of humankind.

If I remember correctly the Bishop of Alexandria was a prick and they drug Hypatia through the streets before flailing her with clamshells.

We're a helluve species.

lime said...

it certainly does sounds like a film of uncommon quality.

Beach Bum said...

Truth: Yeah, the Bishop of Alexandria is a prick in the movie as well. Also, it depresses me when I read something about the Library of Alexandria and think about all that was lost.

Lime: I think you and your family would enjoy it.

Nance said...

You're right, that was an excellent movie and a most appropriate cautionary tale for our times. I loved it, one of those little jewels I pride myself on being able to turn up with Netflix and Roku.

And Weisz beauty is intelligent beauty.

Here at the Redneck Riveria, if it ain't got blood, guts, ignunce and a PG-13 rating (how does that work?), none of the four huge multiplexes within 30 minutes of me will show it. They all show the same line-up, too. I wonder how that's workin' out for them.

Beach Bum said...

Nance: How's it working out for them? Probably the only way they can make it work. Now around here a few films of at least moderate intelligence slip through from time to time but it remarkable to think that these days with 12 to 15 theaters in a movie house the same movie will be playing in 4 to 7 of them.

At a recent blockbuster one movie had a start time every ten minutes.

As for Agora, I really liked the feel or atmosphere it gave of the Roman Eygpt period, made me almost believe I was there.

Randal Graves said...

Hypatia, one of the cool historical chicks as played by one of today's cool chicks? Two thumbs up, even if the movie would have been crap.

Teresa said...

I like the sound of this, I will add it to my que also!

Cloudia said...

Thanks. seen game of thrones?

or the borgias?

Warm Aloha from Honolulu

Comfort Spiral




Beach Bum said...

Randal: Absolutely, Weisz is, as always, hot and the movie was awesome.

Teresa: I think you will enjoy it, the movie has one of those epic and tragic feels that stays with a person. Then again since Sagan first mentioned Hypatia and the Library I've dreamed of meeting and seeing both.

Cloudia: I watched some of the Borgias but I strangely could not get into the story. Will trya again this weekend.

Ranch Chimp said...

I cant even recall the last time I watched a bloody movie! ... geeeez ... sadly I have all kind's of new released DVD's here at home, since that is part of the business I am in ... distributing wholesale new releases and computer game's, etc, to few inde retailer's in Oklahoma and Texas primarily ... but I just havent got around to viewing the bloody thing's. But thanx for the review anywayz Guy!

Beach Bum said...

Ranch: You would enjoy it.

magda and crew in australia said...

Hi Beach Bum..
Awesome travelling your Posts in my reader...
came back to this because I have recently seen the film.
Loved it very much, which is a silly word to use for something that really builds into a tragedy that really took place.
I'll re-type and use... I love the honesty shown throughout the film.
It was so not overdone.

For me... well how daring should I be when visiting I'm not sure...
but I do think anyone who believes in a God of any description should watch it...
But then they also may not register the legacy they have inherited and or choose to have faith in.

I so agree with you... 'how many Hypatias, Da Vincis, and Ben Franklins waste away now unable to develop their talents for stupid reason like lack of money for education?'

I suppose one meek blessing of the modern world is in most places, one no longer need be burned at the stake, stoned, flayed until dead or all other obscenities in the name of a god and associated religion for having a seeking, questing intelligent mind or for being a woman with such attributes.

I did some research after watching the film... interesting how the Dark Ages steadily emerged after that time period, then eventually the Inquisition had its turn... and best not leave out the Crusaders and what they did... I'll stop there.
I suppose such believers have become more 'civilised' through the generations.. though there still are destroyers of knowledge whether of person or thing still happening about the globe in the name of....

It wrenches my heart too thinking of all that was lost with the destruction of Alexandria's great Library... so much knowledge destroyed in the name of....

The pull away scenes were wonderful... loved the scene where those busily destroying the contents from the Library began looking like nothing more than scuttling dots, until nothing but the beauty of the Planet was visible.
Took away the pain for me...
Sadly though the reality of what was done hit hard on the return.

I loved reading your overview of the film... re-awakened the imagery my mind had recorded with having seen Agora.

I have recently watched 'Pope Joan'
You may also find it interesting and worth seeing.
Gave me hope in an abstract way.
Is very much a follow on I feel to where Agora ends.

If I've expressed too much, just delete this.

One of your Guests mentioned The Constant Gardner, based on a book by John le Carré.
A very enlightening, interesting not easy to feel good about story, portrayed well I think on film.