Originally released last year with limited U.S. screenings, audiences best take advantage of this next go-round because Agora is worth every second. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, his vision of Alexandria is a sumptuous yet often gory feast. Starting at 391 AD, the film circles around three focal points, the perpetual religious warfare of the time, the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and the assumed life’s work and teachings of philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, who is stunning in her Hellenic garb, draped in pure Grecian white or clothed in rich purples and vibrant fuschias. The only comparable marvel to rival her is the city of Alexandria and its great Library, envisioned with grandeur and filled with a light and beauty that matches Weisz.
Hypatia, a historical figure, was Greek, which might excuse Ms. Weisz’s conspicuously pale skin as she plays fair maiden amidst her significantly darker Egyptian and Mediterranean counterparts. Daughter of Theon, a prefect of Alexandria, Hypatia is brilliant in math, philosophy, and astronomy though none of her original writings survive. Other philosophers and scientists pay tribute, in their texts, to her contributions, which include the charting of the celestial bodies and the invention of the hydrometer. She lived in the Roman outpost of Alexandria, and Carl Sagan, a modern day champion of her, once argued, without sufficient substantiation, that Hypatia might have been the Ancient Library of Alexandria‘s last librarian. Agora‘s filmmakers took this speculation and ran with it, creating an opulent setting for one very luminescent individual.
The Alexandrian collection of books almost steals the limelight from Weisz, yet its destroyed before we can thoroughly enjoy it. The depiction of this legendary archive is too, too ironic in an age of iPads, Kindles, and Blackberries, when newspapers and magazines are toppling over like rows of dominoes and readers, writers, and journalists across the Western World lament the vanishing act of our own libraries. Amenábar unravels countless scrolls of papyrus across the screen, steeping our current literary crisis into historical context. Agora takes more speculative license when the library’s ultimate destruction is filmed in a stunning series of shots where Christians scramble like ants in frenzied, almost psychopathic glee, as they burn the ancient world’s first systematic and scholarly collection of books.
Doesn’t matter what faith you follow, the thorniest affairs of the 400s still rankle and tear us asunder today as Agora roils amid issues that strike home. Although, Weisz reprises her role from The Mummy as plucky and bright scholar, instead of being a cheeky Egyptologist studying and romanticizing the East from the heart of the Edwardian empire, she’s set right in the thick of Egypt as the Roman empire splinters at the fall of Paganism and the rise of Christianity and Judaism. As most movies might have us believe otherwise, history does not make for an easy or cheerful glimpse into the past. The Christians have amassed in such astonishing numbers that Roman pagans are overwhelmed. And worse yet, for the infidels, their Empire abandons them, giving leave for the Christians to do as they will. The blood-spilling ensues.
First its Pagan against Christian then Christian versus Jew until the Christians soon turn against one another. In the thick of what is essentially savage violence, no matter who perpetrates, our centrifugal force, Hypatia remains obsessed with figuring out whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth and endlessly deliberates on what the relationship is between these two heavenly bodies. Does this matter when her countrymen are killing one another in the streets? Shouldn’t she be settling down or at least making out with Javier Bardem at some point?
Long after they’ve graduated from her class, Hypatia’s pupils come back to her, seeking counsel, yet, at the same time, they spin their wheels trying to change her heathen ways by convincing her she must accept the Christian faith and hinting she should abandon her studies. Oscar Issac’s Orestes never got over his adolescent crush on Hypatia and bends over backwards to protect her in his new and powerful role as converted Christian Roman prefect. He clashes against his former classmate Synesius of Cyrene, a devout bishop, played by Rupert Evans. Their newly appointed duties put them at cross purposes.
Davus, portrayed by an incredibly persuasive Max Minghella, is the invisible slave who sees all. He is the character audiences are supposed to identify with despite his disturbing transformation as Christian devotee. Amenábar makes it clear that Christianity was the first Western faith to bring justice and social welfare for the poor and weak. Davus is torn between being faithful to a woman he loves, who, unfortunately, sees him only when its convenient for her, and his new found faith, which has granted him the freedom to think and act of his own accord. It’s only a matter of time until the powers-that-have-come-to-be are anxious to depose of this educated and powerful woman. Hypatia has not assumed her proper role in this new era of piety, nor is she planning to anytime soon.
Amidst all the bloodshed and religious conflict, lies the crux of the story, the ultimate fatal flaw of man. Misogyny. Cyril, the rising Bishop of Alexandria, played by a compelling Sami Samir, reads the most corrupt passage ever written, next to the condemnation of Eve, from Corinthians 14:34:35, “…let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law…And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.” Anyone who’s familiar with Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times’ columns or read his book, Half the Sky will know that countries today, rife with civil unrest and torn apart by brutal violence, tend to be patriarchal where women are not only discouraged or prohibited from an education but are horrifyingly subjected, on a daily basis, to rape and abuse.
Though the costumes, the scenery, and the cinematography are absolutely stunning, Agora is no easy watch. Rarely, on our movie screens, do we have a woman who knows who she is and lives with purpose. She isn’t soul-searching. She doesn’t have to find herself in relation to another man. She doesn’t feel incomplete or unfulfilled as she pursues the same ambitions of her colleagues. There’s no infantile love interest to bog down and reduce the significance of herstory. This is not a film about a woman’s quest to find herself through romance. We’ve seen plenty of that and will get plenty more, no doubt. Agora is an inimitable vision that scrutinizes History from a very particular point of view, a slant which rarely gets told even though this perspective makes up half the world’s human population.