englishespagñolfrançais
Cinema - Reviews
print the article


Related articles
  1. The Hundred Foot Journey
  2. The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out a Window and Disappeared
  3. Begin Again
  4. Boyhood
  5. Charlie’s Country
  6. Devil’s Knot
  7. The Expendables 3
  8. Felony
  9. Freedom
  10. Get on Up
  11. God’s Not Dead
  12. God’s Pocket
  13. The Inbetweeners 2
  14. Magic in the Moonlight
  15. Night Moves
  16. Predestination
  17. Snowpiercer
  18. These Final Hours
  19. What We Do in the Shadows
  20. All this Mayhem
  21. And So It Goes
  22. Beatrix’s War
  23. Belle et Sebastien
  24. Bethlehem
  25. Deliver us from Evil
  26. Ernest et Celestine
  27. The French Minister/ Quai d’Orsay
  28. Galore
  29. Guardians of the Galaxy
  30. Hercules
  31. Jersey Boys
  32. The Keeper of Lost Causes
  33. Lucy
  34. The Lunchbox
  35. A Most Wanted Man
  36. Mrs Brown’s Boys, D’Movie
  37. Reaching for the Moon/ Flores Raras
  38. Rio 2
  39. Sex Tape
  40. The Selfish Giant
  41. Still Life
  42. Rising from the Ashes
  43. Transformers: Age of Extinction
  44. Venus in Fur/ Venus a la fourrure
  45. Volcano
  46. Words and Pictures
  47. 22 Jump Street
  48. Any Day Now
  49. Blended
  50. The Face of Love
  51. Edge of Tomorrow
  52. The Fault in our Stars
  53. Frank
  54. Good Vibrations
  55. The Last Impresario
  56. A Million Ways to Die in the West
  57. Omar
  58. Once My Mother
  59. The Rover
  60. The Trip to Italy
  61. X-Men Days of Future Past
  62. Yves Saint Laurent
  63. SIGNIS Film Reviews: June 2014
  64. SIGNIS Film Reviews: February/March 2014
  65. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlinale 2014
  66. SIGNIS Statement: Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)
  67. SIGNIS Statement: Calvary
  68. SIGNIS Statement: "Philomena"
  69. SIGNIS Film Reviews: November/December 2013
  70. SIGNIS Film Reviews: July/August 2013
  71. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlinale 2013
  72. SIGNIS Film Reviews: February 2013
  73. SIGNIS Film Reviews: December 2012
  74. "Aristides de Sousa Mendes": The Angel of Bordeaux
  75. SIGNIS Film Reviews: September 2012
  76. SIGNIS Film Reviews: July/August 2012
  77. SIGNIS Film Reviews: June 2012
  78. SIGNIS Film Reviews: May 2012
  79. SIGNIS Film Reviews: March 2012
  80. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlin 2012 Special Edition
  81. SIGNIS Film Reviews: January 2012
  82. SIGNIS Film Reviews: October/November 2011
  83. SIGNIS Film Reviews: May/June 2011
  84. SIGNIS Statement: Oranges and Sunshine
  85. SIGNIS Film Reviews: March/April 2011
  86. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlinale 2011 Special Edition
  87. SIGNIS Statement: The Rite
  88. SIGNIS Statement: Brighton Rock
  89. SIGNIS Film Reviews: January 2011
  90. Out Of The Silence
  91. SIGNIS Film Reviews: December 2010
  92. SIGNIS Film Reviews: October/November 2010
  93. SIGNIS Film Reviews: September 2010
  94. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Summer 2010
  95. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Cannes 2010 Special Edition
  96. SIGNIS Statement: "Des hommes et des dieux" (Of Gods and Men)
  97. SIGNIS Film Reviews: April/May 2010
  98. SIGNIS Statement: Agora
  99. SIGNIS Statement: The Calling
  100. SIGNIS Statement: Lourdes
  101. SIGNIS Statement: No Greater Love
  102. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlin 2010 Special Edition
  103. SIGNIS Film Reviews: January/February 2010
  104. SIGNIS Film Reviews: October/November/December 2009
  105. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Summer 2009
  106. Antichrist: An Essay/Review
  107. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Cannes 2009 Special Edition
  108. SIGNIS Statement: Angels and Demons
  109. SIGNIS Film Reviews: April 2009
  110. SIGNIS Film Reviews: March 2009
  111. SIGNIS Statement: Religulous
  112. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlin 2009 Special Edition
  113. SIGNIS Film Reviews: February 2009
  114. SIGNIS Film Reviews: January 2009
  115. SIGNIS Film Reviews: December 2008
  116. The Church in Transition: Doubt
  117. SIGNIS Film Reviews: October-November 2008
  118. SIGNIS Statement: Brideshead Revisited and its Catholicism
  119. SIGNIS Film Reviews: September 2008
  120. SIGNIS Film reviews: August 2008
  121. SIGNIS Statement: The X-Files: I Want to Believe
  122. SIGNIS Film Reviews: July 2008
  123. SIGNIS Film Reviews: June 2008
  124. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Cannes 2008 Special Edition
  125. SIGNIS Films Reviews: April 2008
  126. SIGNIS Film Reviews: March 2008
  127. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Berlin 2008 Special Edition
  128. SIGNIS Film Reviews: February 2008
  129. SIGNIS Film Reviews: January 2008
  130. SIGNIS Statement: The Golden Compass
  131. SIGNIS Film Reviews: November 2007
  132. SIGNIS Statement: Elizabeth - The Golden Age
  133. SIGNIS Film Reviews: October 2007
  134. SIGNIS Films Reviews: August/September 2007
  135. SIGNIS Film Reviews: June-July 2007
  136. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  137. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Cannes 2007 Special Edition
  138. SIGNIS Film Reviews: May 2007
  139. SIGNIS Film Reviews: April 2007
  140. SIGNIS Film Reviews: February/March 2007
  141. Deliver Us from Evil: SIGNIS Statement
  142. SIGNIS Film Reviews: January 2007
  143. SIGNIS Film Reviews: December 2006
  144. SIGNIS Film Reviews: November 2006
  145. The Nativity Story
  146. SIGNIS Film Reviews: October 2006
  147. SIGNIS Film Reviews: September 2006
  148. SIGNIS Film Reviews: August 2006
  149. SIGNIS Film Reviews: June/July 2006
  150. SIGNIS Film Reviews: Cannes 2006 Special Edition
  151. SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006, SUPPLEMENT
  152. SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006
  153. SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, FEBRUARY 2006
  154. SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, JANUARY 2006

SIGNIS Statement: Agora

(Spain/Malta, 2009, d. Alejandro Almanebar)

London, April 18, 2010 (Peter Malone) - Agora is not a film which will draw large audiences. It is a film for those who are interested in and entertained by historical films and by those who would like to see a film which dramatises a period, not well known at all, in Christian history.

(JPEG)
The central character is the renowned pagan philosopher, Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria at the end of the 4th century

Some reviewers who have seen the film suggest that there is a need for some kind of historical background, especially about the Church in Egypt, in the city of Alexandria, at the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th century. But, first some words about the overall impact of the film itself.

The film is impressive to look at, a combination of sets and computer generated locations. It was filmed in Malta (with a fair percentage of the population seeming to be present as extras, lots of crowd scenes). It runs for 128 minutes, which is quite demanding for a film about such an unfamiliar period. It was directed and co-written by Spanish director, Alejandro Almenabar (whose varied films include, Open my Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky ), The Others and the drama about assisted suicide, The Sea Within ).

Some review comments

The film is also quite demanding in its content and dialogue. The central character is the renowned pagan philosopher, Hypatia She is played with some authority by Rachel Weisz Her philosopher father, Theon, is played by the French actor, Michel Lonsdale. Several sections of the film, some lengthy, are classes and discussions about the nature of the universe and speculation on the Ptolemaic theories of the relationship of the earth to the sun and the planets and how the stars move - or does the sun, or does the earth? Audiences who are not strong on astronomy or geometry may find these sequences too difficult, even baffling. But, it is quite a daring thing to present a feature film which raises these issues and asks its audience to think about them.

However, it is the religious background of the film which needs some explaining. By and large, the screenplay is accurate enough, especially about Hypatia, Orestes the governor of Alexandria and Sinesius, bishop of Cyrene, a pupil of Hypatia, who demands an assent of faith from her at the end of the film but who actually wrote in defence of her theories and died before her murder. There are problems with the presentation of Cyril of Alexandria, bishop of the city, later declared a saint and an important doctor of the church with his contributions to the theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

The film might have been more satisfying for those who know something of the period had it alerted the audience to the fact that relations between pagans, Christians and Jews were not quite as straightforward as they are presented here. While it is accurate enough in general, there is much more to the feuds, hostilities, persecutions and massacres.

391-415 AD

(JPEG)
"The 4th century was one of the most difficult in the Church’s history"

The 4th century was one of the most difficult in the Church’s history and the source of much of the difficulty was, in fact, Alexandria.

From the 2nd century AD, the centres of intellectual debate and theological argument were in the schools of Alexandria and Antioch. By 300 AD, there were great developments in sophisticated theological thought in Alexandria. Agora does not really reflect this reality of the Alexandrian Christians. We see the Christians reflecting on the Scriptures (the Beatitudes in particular), the bishop preaching to the faithful and, later, the reading of texts from Pauline letters which are restrictive on the activities of women in the Church. But - and this may have been the case - most of the Christians are not well educated and easily swayed by populist demagogues, one of whom challenges the pagans to walk through fire unharmed as he does. He is seen as a miracle worker - the dared pagan goes up in flames. However, this is balanced by the same man showing a convert slave the ordinary miraculous in supplying bread for distribution to the poor. Reasonable enough and a fairly sympathetic view of Christians.

But, what had been most important in Alexandria at the beginning of the century was the teaching of the local priest, Arius, whose understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son emphasised the humanity of Jesus as somehow making him inferior to the divine Father. His opponent was the bishop of Alexandria, St Athanasius, who found himself exiled from his city more than once. The historical complication was that this was the time when the emperor Constantine declared that Christianity not be a banned religion, 312 AD. Clashes, both ideological and physical, between pagans and Christians, spread throughout the empire as did the response of governors to the new situation, some for, some against.

While the Church resolved the Christ issue at the first of the ecumenical (worldwide) councils in Nicaea, a suburb of Constantininople, in 325, and enshrined it in a creed formulation that is still recited on Sundays at Masses around the world, the followers of Arius, maintained their stances and influenced a number of political rulers who used their adherence to Arianism to combat bishops. This would have been the case at the time of Hypatia. This could have been incorporated into some of the discussions in the film which would have heightened the reality of the persecution of the Christians by the pagans which resulted in fanatical and violent response, massacres in revenge for the killing of Christians and vandalism in destruction of the world’s greatest library.

Hypatia, declaring herself a seeker after truth and an investigator of the universe, escaped the attacks and survived.

(JPEG)
"There are problems with the presentation of Cyril of Alexandria, bishop of the city, later declared a saint"

Further councils in 431 (Ephesus) and 451 (Chalcedon in Constantinople) led to further work on the theology of the humanity and divinity of Christ.

The second half of the film takes place in 415, the year of Hypatia’s death. The bishop of Alexandria is Cyril. Checking Google references for him shows that he was as irascible as portrayed in the film. He fomented clashes with Orestes who had become a Christian as had many of the pagans and rulers. Another of his targets was the Jewish community. There is a similar difficulty in the portrayal of the Jews as stone throwing zealots and then victims, though not as viciously fanatic as some of the Christian zealots, especially a group of monks who patrol the city supervising morality.

There are records of Jews being in Alexandria since the early 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah and others fleeing there after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587. Much intellectual reflection on the Jewish scriptures and the translation of books from Hebrew to Greek were done in Alexandria. The book of Wisdom, accepted in the Catholic biblical canon comes from this city in the 1st century BC. It is said that John’s Gospel was influenced by the Alexandrian philosopher, Philo. Which means that at the time of the Jewish-Christian clashes in the film, Jews had been a significant part of Alexandria and its intellectual life for about a thousand years.

An Egyptian historian, Damascius, claimed that Cyril was responsible for the death of Hypatia and her very cruel martyrdom. Agora ’s screenplay follows this. Historians say there is no other evidence that this is exact - some 19th century authors took it up again. However, historians do say that Cyril’s bitter approach fomented the pervading atmosphere of hostility which led to Hypatia’s death.

So, there is much in Agora for audiences interested in films which dramatise unfamiliar periods of history. And, it may be more accurate than many others. The above background might have been incorporated into the screenplay to make it more solid and nuanced.

Hypatia the martyr

(JPEG)
"Amenabar says that the film is not against Christianity but against fundamentalism"

While initially the pagans are shown as clinging to their gods and to their own civil status and initiating persecution of the Christians, the Christian response (which was regrettably repeated down the ages, think St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 against the Huguenots) is rabble-roused fanaticism. With the Jewish-Christian clashes, there is a huge heritage of history and persecution which puts the sad experience of the 20th century in the audience’s mind.

At the end, Hypatia is presented as a martyr and quite movingly declaring her own integrity (rather than faith) and bravely and heroically facing her death. This is strongly reminiscent of, even parallel to, the way that the Christian martyrs were portrayed in the storytelling of the early church.

[Actually, there was much more vitality and sophistication in the Christians churches of this period. St Ambrose was bishop of Milan at this time and St Augustine repented of his past in 397 and became the leading theologian of the western church. When Hypatia died, he was bishop of Hippo further west from Alexandria in north Africa, not all that far from the film’ real character, Sinesius, bishop of Cyrene. By the middle of the 5th century Attila the Hun was at the gates of Rome, barbarians at the borders and the western empire was on the verge of collapse.]

Amenabar himself says that the film is not against Christianity but ’a film against fundamentalism, against those who defend their ideas with weapons. It is not against Christians and most certainly not against the Christians of today’.

SIGNIS

print the article