Agora (2010) by Alejandro Amenábar

DVD Review by Ursus

Agora is a good movie, but perhaps not for the reasons it wants to be. As a historical piece, it is mixed at best. As a political statement it works well, though with all the subtlety of a blow to the head. As a visual experience, it is glorious. Directed by a Spaniard but with a broader European production crew, it does contain an intelligence and emotional resonance all too often lacking in American made films.

Alexandria in Egypt is the second largest city in the Roman Empire, with an outstanding tradition of arts and sciences in the Hellenic tradition. Hypatia is a beautiful but virginal woman. As the daughter of an intellectual, she dedicates her life to mathematics and astronomy. Her school includes both Christians and Pagans (no Jewish students; apparently they prefer their synagogues). She suffers unrequited love from two men: Orestes, a pagan aristocrat who is also her student, and Davus, her man slave.

The Christians are now a legitimate religion in the empire. Backed by Theodosius, the Christian emperor, the more fanatical among them seek to turn from the persecuted to the persecutors. An incident in the Agora (market place) quickly turns into a riot. The Serapeum, the city's central temple, is besieged and then stormed. The temple library where Hypatia taught and where much of the ancient knowledge of the world resides is then ransacked. Davus the slave converts to Christianity and assists in the sacking. The world turns.

A few years later, the remains of the library serve as a stable for livestock. Orestes is now Prefect of Rome and tries to balance the competing interests of Christians and Jews (the only legitimate religions now that paganism is outlawed). Hypatia busies herself with exploring a possible heliocentric model of the universe. Do the planets revolve around the sun in a perfect circle? Well, no; she soon reasons their orbits are elliptical. The world will be shocked at this discovery!

But it doesn't matter. Cyril, the new Bishop, has his eyes on taking over the government. First he starts a battle with the Jews and drives them out of the city. Then he seeks to undermine Orestes as prefect. As attacking Orestes head-on is a bit risky, Cyril prefers to attack his advisors and friends. Hypatia is marked for death. The virginal and scientific Hypatia is branded as a whore and a witch. A mob of mad monks lead her to a church for her execution; Christ-like she marches calmly to her death at the hands of people who know not what they do.

The movie was panned by some as an anti-Christian film. Director Alejandro Amenábar declares himself an ex-Christian. He started losing his faith when he read 1 Timothy 2:12 (not coincidentally the same passage that Cyril reads in the movie to discredit Hypatia). As for myself, if I had found myself in Alexandria during the riots, I'd sooner join the crowd defending the statue of Serapis than the crowd who knocked the statue down. In any event, some of the foot soldiers of the early Christian Church did often behave like radical counter-culture goons. And the fact that "Saint" Cyril is portrayed as the gangster leader he was is no falsehood.

But the movie is not anti-Christian as such. Along with Bishop Cyril's violence and power mongering, it depicts all shades of Christianity. There is Bishop Synesius, who is no less dogmatic in belief than Cyril, but who eschews violence. There is Orestes the Prefect, a moderate Christian who seems quite comfortable reconciling his faith to a secular government and quite happy to have pagans as friends. And there is Davus the ex-slave. Initially at least, he seems to actually take Christianity's message to heart: the equality of men in the body of Christ, exercising compassion for the weak and the poor. Christianity is most popular with the poor and slaves, giving it the feel of a proletarian uprising against the pagan aristocracy.

In any event, Amenábar states it was not his intention to besmirch Christianity, but to glorify astronomy. As a boy he had gazed up into the starry sky whilst on a fishing boat and felt a sense of awe before the Milky Way. Then having been inspired by Carl Sagan, he wanted to make a documentary of science and astronomy "from Hypatia to Einstein." Realizing this was an impossible task for one film, he settled for a semi-historical movie on the latter days of Hypatia and the fall of the library of Alexandria.

I say 'semi-historical' with good reason. Justin Pollard, who co-wrote the erudite Rise and Fall of Alexandria, was enlisted as the historical advisor. However, the director confesses to throwing in a considerable amount of dramatic license along with history. Several characters from the saga of Hypatia have been condensed, others have been entirely invented. And some of the events depicted in the movie stand on historically shaky, if thematically logical, ground. All of this is meant to underscore and unify a central theme of fanatical religious zeal versus rational scientific inquiry, embodied in the battle between Christian and Pagan.

But let's look at this. The average pagan in the Roman Empire may not have been opposed to science, but who is to say they were necessarily for it? They made their offerings to their gods before their altars and their temples, hoping for good harvests, an end to illness, and success in life. Most people would not have the education, nor perhaps even the inclination, for the sort of speculative and cosmic religion embodied by Hypatia and her ilk. For their own part, the philosophers often seemed to feel their esoteric musings were the province of the intellectual elite alone.

Hypatia was an extraordinary woman whose murder is reprehensible, but turning her into the slaughtered messiah of enlightenment is a bit much. Especially since there is no evidence she ever conceived of a heliocentric solar system. But Amenábar here admits Hypatia is a stand in. She represents all scientists persecuted by the Church (such as Galileo). More broadly, she represents women through the ages who have been victims of patriarchal oppression. The costume designer admits that the outfits worn by the Parabolans, the Christian militants who murdered Hypatia, were directly inspired by the outfits worn by the Taliban.

It is also debatable if the central event of the movie, the sack of the library, ever took place. While the Christians infamously did storm the Serapeum and knocked over the world famous statue that resided there, the sources seem rather silent on the status of the "daughter library" that had been housed there. Much like the main library that had been accidentally burned in the time of Julius Caesar, the temple library could have been sacked at any point in the previous three centuries. (It is however true that after the Serapeum incident; pre-Christian learning would become increasingly odious to Christian officials).

The director's "tribute to astronomy" is looking a little more like a charged political statement against militant Monotheism. Not against all Monotheism, mind you, but against the virulent kind that seeks political power and the repression of secular knowledge. That wariness is a sentiment I happen to share. But the question here is whether or not Hypatia's life and times is the best backdrop for this. Would not a movie about Galileo's troubles with the Inquisition have been more effective?

That aside, Agora is on its own merits a beautiful film. It is set in an era of the Roman Empire we rarely see on screen, and in a part of the empire that lends itself to awesome scenery. The digitally enhanced sets are breathtaking and give you an idea of Greco-Egyptian architecture.

But the movie also showcases Amenábar's directorial skills at work. Take, for instance, costuming. The pagans in the movie wear white. The Christians wear grey, with the Parabolans wearing dark grey. The Jews wear black. Roman officials and soldiers wear crimson red. The religious divisions of the city are lavishly illustrated in color. For her last outfit, Hypatia wears a light red dress, hinting at the blood about to be shed: hers.

During the sacking of the library, the camera pans around slowly. Then, as priceless scrolls are flying into the fires, and statues are torn down, the camera revolves upside down. The Monotheist attack on ancient knowledge, according to this movie, turned the world on its head. It's a powerful statement.

A more subtle statement is made in another scene. Before the sacking of the library, we see a group of ants busying themselves on a mound of sand. After the sacking, the director's camera flies many meters overhead as the Christian foot soldiers busily ransack the place. The action is sped up. The visual result: people look like ants from above. Amenábar feels that if God or an alien race were to look down on earth, this is what they would see. Our ancient prejudice about humanity and earth being the center of the universe would seem ludicrous to outside forces who watch us scurry about below.

Finally, the acting is sufficient. Perhaps not Oscar material, but good enough to pull off the heavy parts they play. I am sorry I called Rachael Weisz "eye candy." Well, she is eye candy. She is probably a lot younger than the historical Hypatia at the time of her death. But when you give her a role weightier than the fluff piece she played in The Mummy, she can handle it. Her character tells her Christian friends that the difference between her and them is that she must always question her own beliefs in the name of science, while their faith does not permit them to question themselves. And when Weisz delivers those lines, you believe it.

The DVD includes many extras. The most essential is Alejandro Amenábar's audio commentary for realizing his own vision, a little of which I alluded to above. There are also a few deleted scenes, as well as clips on the making of the movie.

Is Agora really a tribute to astronomy as the director claims? Or is it a feminist film, depicting violence directed against women? Is it an anti-zealot film, railing against fundamentalist Monotheists? Or is it an appeal to all of us to constantly question our own ideals, for we are but glimmers of dust in a universe whose grandeur belittles our meager understanding?

Whatever else it is, it is a visually stunning film set in a poorly exposed time frame of Roman history. While its history is distorted and exaggerated, it is also moving and relevant.

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