So it’s probably no surprise that I loved Agora, the clash-of-cultures-in-the-ancient-world-epic written by Mateo Gil and Alejandro Amenábar (collaborators on The Sea Inside and Open Your Eyes) and directed by Amenábar. Agora brings to life 4th Century Alexandria, Egypt, when the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a real-life figure known as a gifted mathematician, astronomer and physicist (it was all called philosophy then), a woman who sublimated what sexual desires she might’ve had to pursue the sciences. Naturally, this sort of head-in-the-clouds thinking when vast mobs of pagans, Christians, Jews and Roman soldiers are clashing for control of one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient world can only lead to woe.
The love life and ultimate fate of the real life Hypatia is unknown, but the filmmakers do a brilliant job of imagining what it might have been. In Agora, Hypatia — because of her beauty or maybe just because she is the ultimate hard-to-get woman — has not two but three men who would give up all to love her. There is Davus (Max Minghella), her family’s slave and an eventual member of the Christian militia. And there are Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Synesius (Rupert Evans), her students, who, in the long arc of years the movie covers will find themselves in power on opposite sides of the religious wars, yet both struggling to save her, the ‘atheist witch’ caught in between.
As a dramatization of scientific discovery or a toga-clad epic, Agora has many antecedents. As an epic love story, I can think of nothing like it. The sacrifices each of the men make show clearly that the filmmakers believe that religion is no barrier to love. Amenábar periodically shows us the Earth from the perspective of the stars, the constant object of Hypatia’s study, effectively underlining how little the conflicts between earthly religions trouble the vast universe. The Christians of Alexandria would overthrow paganism and exile the Jews, but a time will yet come when they shall be overthrown and exiled by Islam. And this cycle of religious violence will go on and on, with science caught in the crossfire.
The ‘agora’ was the marketplace of an ancient city, and also where ideas were publicly debated. In Agora, many battles, intellectual and physical, take place there, but it is not where Hypatia, in the end, is offered the solace of wisdom. Instead, it is in a temple which once functioned as a library and college, now used by the Christians to house farm animals. As she glimpses the oculus of this temple, at an angle, so that it creates an ellipse much like the shape of a human eye or the path of a planet around the sun, we can read on Hypatia’s face the orgasmic completion that she had always sought, stubbornly, in the pursuit of knowledge.
On the technical side, the movie is beautifully shot, directed and edited. Perhaps because it digitally recreates the ancient Alexandria so convincingly, it has reportedly been years in the making. It was worth the wait – and since I believe it is playing in very few theaters in the US – will continue to be worth the wait as it slowly unfurls itself amongst today’s deities, the summer franchise films.