Sunday, May 23, 2010

Looking forward to "Agora" and its story of Hypatia

It has all the trappings of a big, dumb, summer movie. However, I have some hope. The movie is about Hypatia, a woman astronomer/mathematician, living in Alexandria in late Roman Empire. She was killed in 415 AD (oh - c'mon. I didn't give away the ending. This is history :) ). So now comes Agora. Why do I have hope for the film? Hypatia is being played by Rachel Weisz - who is smart, intelligent, and is usually quite selective in her choice of films (okay - Mummy 2 was a mistake, but she was quite new at the time). In fact, she has been active in shaping the depiction of Hypatia in this film as well. In her own words, she does not want Hypatia to come off simply as "a brain on two legs". The second reason why I'm hopeful about he film is that is directed by Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar, whose earlier work includes The Others and The Sea Inside - both independent and highly acclaimed films. In fact, he was thinking of making a film about the history of astronomy, when he stumbled onto the fascinating character of Hypatia.

But the film is also a commentary on religious intolerance. It seems that the film, while set in 5th century Alexandria, makes a deliberate comparison with the Taliban of the 21st century (though the Taliban would rather be living in the 10th century AD). Here is a bit from an article in today's NYT:

“The hot topic these days is Islamic fundamentalism,” Ms. Weisz said recently over tea at an East Village restaurant near her home. “But in ‘Agora,’ it’s the Christians who are the fundamentalists” whose zealotry leads them to destroy one of the libraries of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest center of learning in the ancient world.

Some of those scenes evoke the Taliban’s demolition of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan in 2001, and Ms. Weisz, British born and educated at Cambridge, said such parallels were deliberate. In another scene, Hypatia has a veil put over her head, “and it said in the script that this should be reminiscent of the burqa,” she recalled.

“The very first thing I thought when I read the script was that this is a story about today, a very contemporary, 21st-century story,” she said. She mentioned opposition to stem cell research and to the teaching of evolution as examples of “a wall between science and religion” that still stands, and then concluded her thought: “That we’re still killing people in the name of God is primitive but true.


“She was an exceptional woman, a virginal intellectual who managed to impose herself as an important figure, a reference point in the philosophical and political life of Alexandria during a crucial epoch” Mr. AmenĂ¡bar said. “We are accustomed to seeing lions devouring Christians in films, but not the transformation of Christians from a persecuted group to one that is powerful and armed.”

C'mon - it better be good, and I hope they do justice to the topic. Read the full article here. Here is the trailer for Agora:

By the way, Hypatia also captured Sagan's imagination and was brought up multiple times in Cosmos. Here is a clip about the last days of the Library of Alexandria and the death of Hypatia:


Tim O'Neill said...

The movie actually distorts the history to suit its agenda; see for details. And Sagan, who I admire greatly as a scientist, actually bungled the history behind her story even more badly, as detailed here:

. said...

I've seen it and its really horrible. It had been leaked on torrents a while ago. Avoid if possible.

Salman Hameed said...

Tim - thanks for the link. This is helpful.

Ali -I may still have to see it. And stop watching movies on the computer screen... ;)

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