Wednesday, July 21, 2010



Agora Undoubtedly, religion is a significant part of human history and it has contributes to the humanity one way or the other. Unfortunately, religion is also the root of much human suffering and killing. It is the origin of many endless wars, even today. In addition, religion rarely stands on the same side of science, but quite often on the opposite. Yet, after thousands of years, people still die for their faith, condemn those who believe otherwise, and refuse to learn from science.

Academy Award-winning ("The Sea Inside") director Alejandro Amenábar's thought provoking and beautifully shot historical epic "Agora" (Spain 2009 | 127 min.) subtly raises philosophical inquiries about religion by telling a story about a legendary Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia.

Set in the 4th Century in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) passionately devotes herself to science and teaches her students, both Pagans and Christians, inside the Library of Alexandria. One of her students Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who later becomes Prefect of Alexandria, openly expresses his love toward her, but she declines. Meanwhile, her young slave, Davus (Max Minghella) who later becomes a Christian in order to be free from slavery, secretly falls for her.

Outside the Library, Christians are waging a war with Pagans. The conflict escalates into a killing spree, and Hypatia and Pagans are chased out of the Library and live in exile.

After Pagans are out of the sight, the clash between Christians and Jews breaks out into horrific violence. During all these religious and social unrests, Hypatia continues her research and discovery until she becomes the target to be destroyed, in the name of God, by Bishop Cyril (Sami Samir).

Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella in AGORA

The film intelligently makes its philosophical points through its characters. Hypatia once summarizes the fundamental difference between a religious mind and a scientific mind when she speaks to her student Bishop Synesius (Rupert Evans): "You don't question what you believe, or cannot. I must." That is probably the reason why thousands of years later, science has made tremendous progress, while Christians are still reading the same book.

Besides telling a gripping story, the film is a terrific lesson in both history and mathematics. It is enchanting to get an elegant and intuitive review about basic properties of an ellipse by the brilliant Hypatia in this film.

Imagine what human history might have been if there were no religion. How about dream about it like John Lennon did? "Nothing to kill or die for."

"Agora" opens on Friday, July 23, 2010 at Bay Area theaters.

A very thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (neither Hypatia nor the Great Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. I don't go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog ( - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.
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