Rachel Weisz's historical epic informs as well as entertains.
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13 Mar 2013 - 11:22 AM  UPDATED 15 Mar 2013 - 1:45 PM

High achievers from history – the astronomer and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria and the head of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan – are the focus of the next two films screening at 9.30pm on Saturday on SBS ONE.

[ SBS ONE Film season: full schedule ]

Director Alejandro Amenábar's Agora (March 16) is set in the 4th Century and Sergey Bodrov's Mongol (March 23) in the 12th Century. Both films made me ponder how accurate it is possible to be about real-life people and events that happened hundreds of years ago.

Frankly, I lucked out with Agora: it is set in ancient Alexandria, which was then part of the Roman Empire, and I remembered that my brother-in-law, Ron Newbold, had specialised in the late Roman Empire during his long career as a senior lecturer in classics at Adelaide University.

“The 4th Century is the best attested century in the whole of classical antiquity,” he told me. “It was a comparatively literate era – many people were putting their thoughts down on papyrus and writing a record of events – and many of the writings from that time have survived for us today.”

Classical antiquity, incidentally, is the term used to describe the period of history focussed on ancient Greece and Rome and stretching from the 8th Century BC to the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century.

Agora portrays a turbulent time when many pagans and Christians were at each other's throats. They often justified their actions and theological positions in writing, he continued.

“It was a very divisive time. People were wound up by a lot of things and some thought the end of the world was near and they had better be ready for judgement day. One of the easiest ways to show piety was to act violently towards non- or wrong-believers: kill, burn, destroy.”

Many of the scenes in Agora take place in the Library of Alexandria, one of the biggest and most significant libraries on Earth at that time. Those who ran the library, including Hypatia's father, aimed to collect all the knowledge in the world and at one stage Hypatia and her cronies desperately try to save as many scrolls as they can when the ransacking Christians arrive.



Filmmakers regularly take liberties with the truth of course, for the sake of creating an entertaining story, but Ron told me Agora was included in a new “classical world in film” course last year at the university so, as a depiction of the times, the film has some credibility.

Sadly, I have no one in my immediate family to chew the fat with on Mongol. My gut feeling is that in places that the Mongol Empire once covered some audience members would regard Genghis Khan as a fearless and loyal leader – and might be offended by the film's slightly playful tone – while others will think him a war-mongering brute, quite regardless of the film. Such is the nature of entrenched beliefs.