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Peter T Chattaway

Agora

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Three making history with Amenabar

Rachel Weisz, Ashraf Barhom and Oscar Isaac will star in Alejandro Amenabar's untitled English-language movie being prepped for a major shoot in Malta.

Much of the project, which Amenabar wrote and is directing, has been shrouded under a veil of secrecy. A historical drama set in early Egypt, it concerns a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, a female philosophy professor and atheist.

Weisz will play Hypatia, the Alexandrian professor.

Barhom -- one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film "Paradise Now" who also stole scenes from the American stars in Universal's "The Kingdom" -- is playing a zealous Christian monk named Ammonius. Isaac, who played Joseph in New Line's "The Nativity Story" and appears in Steven Soderbergh's "Guerilla," is set as Orestes, who has an unrequited love for Hypatia. . . .

Hollywood Reporter, February 13

- - -

Regarding the historical Hypatia, Wikipedia states:

Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Bishop Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled.

One day in March 415CE[22], during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks[22] led by a man identified only as "Peter".

She was stripped naked and dragged through the streets to the newly christianised Caesareum church and killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostrakois (literally, "oyster shells", though also used to refer to roof tiles or broken pottery) and set ablaze while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death. . . .

Hoo boy. This oughtta be interesting.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Weisz, Minghella to star in 'Agora'

Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella will star in ancient Egyptian epic "Agora," the next film by Alejandro Amenabar and the first production from Fernando Bovaira's new Madrid-based banner Mod Prods. . . .

"Agora," Amenabar's second English-language film after Nicole Kidman starrer "The Others," is set in Roman Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Weisz plays astrologer-philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, who fights to save the collected wisdom of the ancient world. Her slave Davus (Minghella) is torn between his love for his mistress and the possibility of gaining his freedom by joining the rising tide of Christianity. . . .

Variety, March 13

Bovaira takes wraps off 'Agora'

Fernando Bovaira's new Madrid-based production house Mod Producciones unveiled the name of its first production Thursday, announcing Alejandro Amenabar's upcoming Ancient Egypt epic will be titled "Agora." . . .

Set in Roman Egypt in the fourth century, "Agora" tells the story of the legendary astronomer Hypatia (Weisz), trapped in the legendary Library of Alexandria, and her fight to save the old world's wisdom from the religious riots sweeping the streets of Alexandria. Her slave Davus (Minghella) wrestles with his yearning for freedom and his professed love for his mistress.

"No matter how many centuries have passed since the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the story 'Agora' tells is totally relevant today," Bovaira said. . . .

The international cast also includes Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans and Homayoun Ershadi.

"Amenabar has written an epic, passionate tale about one woman's relentless pursuit of truth," Weisz said. "It gets to the heart of the ugliness and the beauty of what it is to be human."

Hollywood Reporter, March 14

- - -

And yes, it looks like St. Cyril will be portrayed in this film. The IMDb lists an actor named Sami Samir in the role; his past roles include a thief in The Nativity Story and one of the terrorists in Munich.

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20080423---loc_25.jpg

Delimara doubles as ancient Egypt

A set has been built at Delimara for the shooting of the ancient Egyptian epic, Agora, based in Roman Egypt in the fourth century AD.

Times of Malta, April 23

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Unfinished films providing fresh footage

Pics in the works unspooling for buyers at AFM . . .

Spanish helmer Alejandro Amenabar's lavish fourth-century Roman-Egypt epic about philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her struggle to protect her life's work in the midst of war. Her two loves are played by Max Minghella and Oscar Isaac. Thesps will be on hand in Santa Monica for the unveiling of first footage from the film. Pic is scripted by Amenabar and his longtime collaborator Mateo Gil. (Focus Intl.)

Variety, October 30

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Looks a bit like a feature-length version of that violent-Christian-mob flashback in The Da Vinci Code, but alas, given the real-life Hypatia's fate, such a theme would not be so gratuitous here:

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Her Wikipedia page suggests that, despite her murder at the hands of a mob of Coptic Christians, she was widely admired by other Christians -- in fact, the article suggests that her murder was a violent expression of some sort of internecine conflict between Christian factions. (It looks like St. Cyril of Alexandria was on the anti-Hypatia side, and the monks (?) who killed her were Cyril's followers -- though there is at least dispute as to whether Cyril bears any responsibility for her death.)

Anyway. Dare we hope the movie will show orthodox catholic Christians who are sympathetic to Hypatia as well as the mob responsible for her murder? Or will all Christians be unsympathetic (unless perhaps, a la King Arthur, they are somehow heretical)?

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SDG wrote:

: Anyway. Dare we hope the movie will show orthodox catholic Christians who are sympathetic to Hypatia as well as the mob responsible for her murder?

I think it is very plausible that orthodox catholic Christians who were historically sympathetic to Hypatia will be included in the film. Whether the film conveys their orthodox catholicity is another matter.

Wikipedia says that Hypatia "maintained correspondence with her former pupil Bishop of Ptolomais Synesius of Cyrene," and that that set of writings is one of only two that have survived which contain descriptions or information about her from her pupils. The movie's IMDb page indicates that a character named Synesius does appear in the film, and he is played by Rupert Evans, an actor I don't recognize except that he apparently had some role in the original Hellboy. At any rate, I think it likely that the film will show Hypatia maintaining a friendly relationship with this bishop (assuming we ever get to see him as a bishop). But will Synesius be portrayed as a fairly orthodox catholic Christian, or will he be agnosticized (a la what Ridley Scott did to Balian in Kingdom of Heaven), or something else? Who knows.

... Huh. I just checked out the Wikipedia page on Synesius, and found this:

In 409 or 410 Synesius, whose Christianity had until then been by no means very pronounced, was popularly chosen to be bishop of Ptolemais, and, after long hesitation on personal and doctrinal grounds, he ultimately accepted the office thus thrust upon him, being consecrated by Theophilus at Alexandria. One personal difficulty at least was obviated by his being allowed to retain his wife, to whom he was much attached; but as regarded orthodoxy he expressly stipulated for personal freedom to dissent on the questions of the soul's creation, a literal resurrection, and the final destruction of the world, while at the same time he agreed to make some concession to popular views in his public teaching.

Well, it would be interesting to know what lies behind all THOSE claims. But I can easily imagine how these filmmakers might spin all that.

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Well, it would be interesting to know what lies behind all THOSE claims. But I can easily imagine how these filmmakers might spin all that.

Huh. How weird is it to be contemplating this sort of early-church inside baseball in connection with an upcoming film??

I looked up Synesius of Cyrene in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, and it substantiates much of what Wikipedia says, in greater detail:

The bishop-elect unbosomed himself in a letter [Ep. cv] to Euoptius. ... "Philosophy is opposed to the opinions of the vulgar. I certainly shall not admit that the soul is posterior to the body … that the world and all its parts shall perish together. The resurrection … I consider something sacred and ineffable and am far from sharing the ideas of the multitude". He could keep silence but not "pretend to hold opinions which he did not hold".

You can see how uncomfortable the writer is with the whole business, not as regards Synesius but as regards Theophilus, who consecrated him a bishop seven months after Synesius wrote that letter.

The brief Wiki article on Orestes adds to the dismal picture. It does look worse and worse for the Christians involved, particularly for the church leadership. At first glance I had thought there was some sort of internecine conflict in the church, but no, so far as I can see right now it looks more like a conflict between Christians and other interests. Wikipedia cites a glowing description of Hypatia in the work of Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus, but he seems to have been a layman.

Edited by SDG

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SDG wrote:

: You can see how uncomfortable the writer is with the whole business, not as regards Synesius but as regards Theophilus, who consecrated him a bishop seven months after Synesius wrote that letter.

Yeah. And yet, Theophilus (and his nephew Cyril!) were both involved in getting St. John Chrysostom deposed at one point. (Or maybe MORE than one point!?) Which just makes their willingness to accept someone as apparently dodgy as Synesius look all the stranger.

Ah well. If I ever feel bad about thinking that Cyril might turn out to have been something of a jerk, I can console myself with the thought that Chrysostom -- possibly the most influential early-church figure in Eastern Orthodoxy outside of the first century -- might have had reason to think that Cyril was something of a jerk, too.

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Todd McCarthy:

The mother of all secular humanists fights a losing battle against freshly minted religious zealots in

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Twitch's review:

Those who have seen the trailer for Agora need no convincing as to the scope and beauty of the film. It is, quite simply, flat-out gorgeous. The casting is spot on in every case - Max Minghella being particularly strong as slave-turned-zealot Davus - and the script very neatly balancing the history with the drama. On the script front, many expressed early concern that this would play simply as an anti-Christian screed but that is very much not the case, Amenabar delivering a very balanced telling of the events. In his telling it is very clearly the Pagans who trigger the events that lead directly to the destruction of the library, all sides in all of the running conflicts being portrayed as similarly well meaning on the surface but deeply flawed below. No, this is not an anti-Christian film though it is very definitely an anti-extremism film, the message driven home in a very pointed scene in which Hypatia demands of the arrogant Christian leaders why her conversion to Christianity should be a foregone conclusion, as they claim it is. After all, has their god proven any more just or merciful than any of the others that they have overthrown and replaced. Regardless of which god may be the figurehead, tt

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I have a number of questions about this film's treatment of history. Mainly I am wondering just how much the narrative will rely on the secular hagiographical treatment of Hypatia as developed by Edward Gibbon and others in the 18th and 19th centuries, and notably popularized by Carl Sagan in Cosmos (both the book and the show). Does Agora follow the "conflict thesis" talking points of Gibbon and Sagan, playing up Hypatia as the victim of a fictitious war against science by Christians? Or will it take into account the fact that Hypatia was widely admired among learned Christians? And that good reasons exist for attributing her death to political causes? Or will it get the history all wrong but be a compelling film nonetheless?

From what I have read thus far about the film, I am not too encouraged. Typical is this sort of thing, from the previously cited AP piece:

Rachel Weisz and director Alejandro Amenabar traveled back to ancient times to tell a modern story about a progressive woman standing against religious dogma and persecution. [...] As the Roman Empire declines, Hypatia struggles to preserve scientific knowledge amid the clash of zealots in Alexandria, whose rising Christian population grows increasingly militant toward Jews and worshippers of the Egyptian gods. [...] Forced to flee the city's library, a storehouse of ancient knowledge and manuscripts, Hypatia rescues a handful of irreplaceable texts from a Christian ransacking and continues her theorizing on the nature of the universe. Christian leaders eventually label her a witch and make her a martyr to scientific reason.

Or this:

Played by Oscar-winning British actress Weisz, Hypatia is persecuted in the film for her science that challenges the Christians' faith, as much as for her status as an influential woman. From bloody clashes to public stonings and massacres, the city descends into inter-religious strife, and the victorious Christians turn their back on the rich scientific legacy of antiquity, defended by Hypatia.

The idea that Hypatia died because she stood for science is groundless; it's a fashionable modern fabrication. Here is what Sagan writes in Cosmos:

Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised [Hypatia] because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

Sagan's is the common view, but it is important to note that it is not based on ancient sources. Let's put aside Sagan's absurdity about learning being "largely identified by the early Church with paganism." There is no reason whatsoever to support the purely speculative notion that Hypatia was hated and killed "because she was a symbol of learning and science." In fact, there are reasons to reject that speculation. Here is what Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas say in Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion (Oxford UP, 2007):

Sagan's story is long on drama, short on facts. There are few historical sources to support the repeated use of the Hypatia affair against Christianity. [...] She was not an active pagan. She was, in fact, sympathetic to Christianity and protective of her Christian students. And two of her students were even consecrated Christian bishops! [One of these bishops, Synesius, referred to her as "my most revered teacher" who "legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy.] Hypatia's death was not related to science but was the consequence of political quarrels between prefect Orestes and patriarch Cyril, who had no direct involvement. The whole affair has little to do with the anti-Christian legend that portrays it as a consequence of the increasing power of the Church acting against ancient philosophy and science.

Clearly, Sagan relies too much on Gibbon and takes major liberties with the historical record. That is evident in the way Sagan conflates Hypatia's death with the burning of the Library of Alexandria. That may well make for a riveting story, but it has no ground in history at all. The real Library's destruction predated Hypatia by some time. And, although details are pretty sketchy, the Library was NOT destroyed by mobs of science-hating Christians. The best theory points to a fire caused by the armies of Caesar in 48 BC.

At any rate, the story is vastly more complicated than the Gibbon-Sagan hypothesis suggests. The "modern story about a progressive woman standing against religious dogma and persecution" may or may not make for compelling cinema, but we should at least realize that that story is not necessarily Hypatia's story. By all accounts she was a remarkable woman; I hope the film does her justice.

For a good in-depth treatment I recommend Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska, upon which Giberson and Artigas rely. Dzielska is very good on the political conflict between Orestes and Cyril.

Edited by thwackum

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thwackum wrote:

: Or will it take into account the fact that Hypatia was widely admired among learned Christians?

I think it is very possible that this film could acknowledge that Hypatia was admired by learned Christians -- but only if these Christians are of a more "liberal" persuasion. I know it's reductive to frame 4th-century theological debates in 21st-century terms, but then, films of this sort are usually made with an eye on current events to begin with -- and as we noted earlier in this thread, one of Hypatia's biggest defenders among the episcopate seems to have been borderline heretical in his views on, say, the Resurrection.

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I think it is very possible that this film could acknowledge that Hypatia was admired by learned Christians -- but only if these Christians are of a more "liberal" persuasion. I know it's reductive to frame 4th-century theological debates in 21st-century terms, but then, films of this sort are usually made with an eye on current events to begin with -- and as we noted earlier in this thread, one of Hypatia's biggest defenders among the episcopate seems to have been borderline heretical in his views on, say, the Resurrection.

I'm not so concerned about the presentation of "liberal" or heretical Christians sympathizing with Hypatia. But is she presented as a martyr for science, slain by bigots threatened by her scientific learning? That's my main concern.

I wanted to mention that I am not usually one to fret too much over what can be perceived as anti-Christian bias in films. For one thing it is often more complicated than that. Moreover, the fact remains that Hypatia was indeed killed by Christians, albeit for political purposes.

But it seems to me that the filmmakers' apparent purpose of equating 4th century Christian "fundamentalists" (talk about an anachronistic, unhelpful term) with modern day fanatics may betray a sort of historical extremism in itself. I guess I am frustrated because Hypatia is a truly interesting figure and it should be possible to tell a riveting story about her without promoting a lie. But the lie has a lot of cheap dramatic potential on its side.

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ComingSoon.net passes along the following movie synopsis:

4th century A.D. Egypt under the Roman Empire... Violent religious upheavel in the streets of Alexandria spills over into the city's famous Library. Trapped inside its walls, the brilliant astronomer Hypatia and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the Ancient World... Among them, the two men competing for her heart: The witty, priviliged Orestes and Davus, Hypatia's young slave, who is torn between his secret love for her and the freedom he knows can be his if he chooses to join the unstoppable surge of the Christians.

The "unstoppable surge". Hmmm.

FWIW, Jeffrey Wells also notes that the version of this film playing in Toronto right now may be about 15 minutes shorter than the version that played at Cannes.

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Hmmm indeed. The only character speaking for God in this film speaks with a foreign accent and looks like he's from the Middle East (as opposed to all the other white characters...in Egypt...hmmm again). If this follows the typical Hollywood trajectory it doesn't look like there's not going to be many shades of grey in this one...

Matt

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Muddled film that has its sights set high in the right course but lacks focus and a direct script that can handle the subject matter. Alejandro Amen

Edited by vin.disulja

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Variety and the Hollywood Reporter both say this film is a huge success in its native Spain -- earning $10.4 million in its first four days, which gives it the second-biggest opening ever for a "local" film (the record is held by a sequel that came out four years ago) and makes it already the highest-grossing "local" film of the year.

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I hadn't paid much attention to this project, and now I'm intrigued. I'm frustrated by the manipulation of history for the sake of an all-too-obvious agenda, but it appears that the film merits a viewing.

Edited by Ryan H.

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The film now has an American distributor: Newmarket Films, the company behind Memento, The Passion of the Christ and the upcoming Charles Darwin biopic Creation.

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Tim R:

You can’t fault Agora, a saga of ancient Alexandria, astronomy and religious strife, for gumption or ambition – just plain common sense. It’s of some egghead interest, but who on earth paid for it? ... The director, Alejandro Amenábar, has a crashing great beef with Christian fundamentalism and the threat to scientific learning – everyone grabs what scrolls they can before the library’s ransacked. Meanwhile, the ridiculously handsome Max Minghella moons around as a lovestruck slave, vying with snooty-pants student Oscar Isaac for Hypatia’s affections.

Some clunky captions lurch us forward an hour in, and it’s still not clear what Amenábar thinks he’s doing – there are a few piercing images amid a lot of patience-taxing marketplace dust-ups, and some of the worst barnets in Christendom. Visibly recut, the movie has too little time to do itself intelligent justice – I wish it had been a miniseries.

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'Agora' Star Rachel Weisz Talks CGI And 'Edgy Sex Scenes'

MTV: What appealed to you first and foremost? Alejandro as a director?

Weisz: I guess it was him first and foremost and what he was asking me to do with this real woman. I had never heard of her, but it was such an interesting role. Plus the thing that really struck me when I read it was, when I put it down, I thought, "This is really a contemporary film. This is a film about today." Really nothing much has changed in terms of human beings and killing each other and "My God is better than your God." There's this resurgence of fundamentalism on the planet, so it's kind of like, "Wow, we still haven't figured this out?" I just thought, "Wow, this is a fourth-century contemporary film." . . .

MTV Movie News, April 28

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Its like...totally contemporary in a really contemporary way! But Old school contemporary. Really, really contemporary. Did I mention that it is contemporary? Because you know what? It totally is. :)

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