Tuesday, October 02, 2012

133. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s English film “Agora” (2009): An admirable subject for a remarkable feature film

Often good movies should be evaluated both by its subject and by the interesting manner the director and the rest of the production team contributes to or presents the subject as the final product.  Rarely does one come across amazing subjects captured on film that over-shadows the total effort of the production team. There are very few movies that make the viewer to cheer the movie’s filmmakers for choosing to make a film on a subject rather than for their combined effort that resulted in making it. One such example is the male Senegalese director’s Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé (2004) from Senegal that exhibited unusual courage to discuss a cultural subject that affects women of different faiths in Africa. Sembene is a respected African filmmaker but Moolaadé is important because a great filmmaker chose to highlight an issue that is rarely discussed in public fora. Similarly, this critic applauds another male director Alejandro Amenábar’s decision to make a feature film Agora, centred on the historic lady astronomer, mathematician, and thinker Hypatia (born between 351and 370 AD and died in 415 AD) that most people are not even aware of.  Amenabar’s film  Agora is certainly not his best cinematic work—yet this film will provide the viewer with sufficient material, historical and fictional, to discuss and ruminate upon, long after one has seen the movie.

Alejandro Amenábar has stated to interviewers that the film is essentially about astronomy and the pursuit of knowledge. And the film deserves to be viewed and evaluated in that context.

This writer stumbled on Hypatia’s existence when he read the multi-volume Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as a college student of physics in Chennai some 40 years ago and often wondered why this incredible individual never got mentioned whenever Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo are discussed.  Fortunately, two decades ago, Carl Sagan mentioned Hypatia in his book Cosmos and in his equally fascinating TV serial Cosmos (1980). It is even more commendable to note that Hypatia, a citizen of Alexandria in Egypt had no relationship with Spain and yet a Spanish filmmaker, Amenábar, decided to make a feature film centred around her life. And Amenábar’s film Agora went on to become the highest grossing film released in Spain in 2009 and won seven Spanish national film awards (Goyas) that year.

Who is Hypatia? She was the daughter of the last recorded librarian of the famous Alexandria library. This library was the most famous one in the ancient world (it existed for some 600 years from the 3rd Century BC to the 3rd century AD) and contained enormous knowledge gathered by Alexandrians who copied on scrolls accumulated knowledge of civilizations and nations far away by searching each passing ship that traded the goods from the East and the West, keeping the originals in the library and replacing the originals with copied texts that resembled the originals on the ships. Moreover, the Egyptian rulers sent people to faraway centres of learning to procure scrolls (ancient books) of knowledge. Unfortunately for humankind, the great resource of knowledge was burnt partially or completely by fires on  three or four occasions, once by Julius Caesar, once during the lifetime of Hypatia, then by the decree of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 AD and, finally, during the Muslim conquest of Alexandria in 642 AD.

Now, Hypatia was not merely the daughter of the librarian of Alexandria but also the head or principal of the Platonist school of Alexandria imparting the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to her students of varied religions and nations. She is often considered to be the inventor of the hydrometer that calculates the specific gravity of liquids to this day. And she was obsessed with the movements of celestial bodies with respect to the earth, especially the theory of the sun being the centre of the Universe propounded earlier by Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) —a scientific inquiry by Hypatia, which is discussed in Amenábar’s film extensively. But tragically Hypatia is stoned to death after being caught in a web of politics involving Christians and pagans in Alexandria, the seaport city of Egypt that exists to this day.

What is agora? “Agora” is a term for a gathering place, for athletic, spiritual, artistic or political activity in an ancient city. Amenábar’s film Agora deals with events that take place at the agora in Alexandria during life of Hypatia, mostly based upon historical facts with some fiction thrown in by the talented scriptwriters Amenábar and Mateo Gil, who are also Spanish film directors of repute. Amenábar cast English actress Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, and Ms Weisz does a commendable job but Amenabar would have been more historically accurate if an older actress had been picked for the role, simply because Hypatia was not as young as Ms Weisz looked when she died. The film brings together a group of great actors from different countries, including French actor Michel Lonsdale, who plays Hypatia’s father Theon the librarian, and the Iranian actor Humayoun Ershadi, who plays Hypatia’s slave and research assistant.

Instead of accepting the movie as a tribute to astronomy and to an unsung lady who promoted science, many viewers have taken offence at the depiction of the fundamentalism of the early Christians that led to Hypatia’s cruel death when she was neither a pagan nor a Christian but a true scientist and academician. The film was screened by the distributors at the Vatican before its release and there was no official objection to the movie from the Catholic church. And there are many who refuse to accept the accuracy of Gibbon’s and Sagan’s writings. But some vital facts remain undisputed—Hypatia existed, she was killed by a mob, and she was one of the earliest recorded woman astronomers in history. And Amenábar’s film Agora has helped immensely to bring this lady and the importance of the famed Alexandria library to the limelight.

Movies like Agora underline the importance of feature films in disseminating historical facts that would have remained unknown to many otherwise. Movies like Agora are examples of one country taking interest in another’s history and bringing together actors from various lands to celebrate the life of a remarkable individual stamped out of popular discussions because society is embarrassed about the events that led to her death. Movies like Agora celebrate the importance the rulers of certain countries, such as Egypt, gave towards accumulation of knowledge from distant lands, even if the process was colored by deceit and money-power.

P.S. This famous Alexandria library has now been rebuilt in 2002 on the original site of the destroyed library with funds from UNESCO to house 5 million books. (The new library’s director is Ismail Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank.)

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé (2004) has been reviewed earlier on this blogAmenábar’s film Mar Adentro (The Sea Within) (2004) has also been reviewed on this blog.


Murtaza Ali said...

I remember having this movie in my collection for quite some time now, but I never really paid any attention to it. Your erudite analysis has enlightened me about yet another movie. I will get back for a better insight as soon as I am through watching it!!!

Murtaza Ali said...

I finally watched it and loved every bit of it! It's indeed disconcerting to note that how cruel and unjust society has been towards women and more so in accepting their genius. I bet there would have been many more great female personalities who, despite having played an decisive role in the shaping of human civilization, would have met Hypatia's fate. Thanks a lot, sir, for yet another great review!!!

Pedro sanchez del montón said...

Thank you, Murtaza, for your sensible point of view. Many times, when we look back to History and happenings in the past, we feel sadness about the power of brute force, tyranny and the lack of intelligence. It seems that the side of reason and science will be always losers against religion, fanaticism and bad governments.

Murtaza Ali said...

Dear Pedro, before thanking for sharing your valuable thoughts on this blog, I must first correct you that the author of this blog is Mr. Jugu Abraham and it's he who should be lauded for writing this insightful article on a highly underrated film. I merely am an admirer of his work. Coming back to Agora, I think you have quite pithily summed up the plight of reason and science at the hands of religion and fanaticism. Today, we are in the 21st century but I am not really sure whether the artists/scientists still have the freedom to express themselves to the fullest.