Agora

Alexandria, Egypt. 391 A.D. The World Changed Forever

At first glance Agora, a rousing, finger-pointing drama from the Chilean-born director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside) is a bit of a puzzle. This is a good thing, since most movies plop down in easily recognizable categories and stay there, troubling neither their own intellectual inertia nor that of the audience.

Agora, bristling with ideas and topical provocations, unfolds in a world of togas, sandals and high-flown language, a setting that might lead you to expect camp, classicism or Gladiator. What you get, at least in the early scenes, is the story of three young men with a crush on their science teacher. Her name is Hypatia, she is a noblewoman in the Egyptian city of Alexandria – it’s the fourth century A.D., by the way – and since she is played by Rachel Weisz, you can hardly blame them. Hypatia, who is based on a historical figure, pursues the mysteries of the cosmos with dogged dialectical skill and is regarded throughout the city with admiration and awe. One of her slaves, Davus (Max Minghella), visibly pines for her, as does a shy pupil named Synesius (Rupert Evans), and one much less shy named Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who propositions her in the famous library of Alexandria, which she directs. Later he makes a public declaration of his love, and she responds by presenting him with a handkerchief stained with her menstrual blood, a rejection much more blunt than any text message.

But I’m ahead of the story, which is only partly about the lovelorn students and their lovely instructor. Hypatia, doted on by her father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), is not only indifferent to male desire but to the consequences of the crisis that is threatening the peace of her city. Alexandria’s pagan aristocracy, to which Hypatia belongs, is challenged by a rebellious and increasingly militant Christian population, with the city’s Jews caught in the middle and its class divisions exacerbated by religious tension. In the midst of intense sectarian conflict Hypatia persists in trying, centuries before Kepler and Galileo, to understand the laws that govern the motions of the planets.

Mr. Amenábar, working from an insightful script that he wrote with Mateo Gil, focuses on two moments when the ancient culture war reached a fever pitch and shows that no group is entirely innocent of violence and intolerance. Whoever is in power tries to preserve it by fair means or foul, and whoever wants power uses brutality to acquire it. So in the first half of the film the insurgent Christian mob draws pagan blood, and the beleaguered pagan elite, including Theon and Orestes, meets the threat with savagery.

Hypatia, a humanist and an intellectual, finds herself threatened from all sides. And though her predicament is sometimes laid out in heavy thematic speeches, it is also very moving. This is partly because Ms. Weisz is such a sympathetic presence and adept at showing how her character’s combination of wisdom and unworldliness makes her vulnerable to the guile, cowardice and opportunism of others. But it is also because Mr. Amenábar and Mr. Gil do not stack the odds in her favour.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that Agora treats this kind of wishful thinking with a skepticism that makes the film not only sad but also chilling. It is entirely – not dogmatically but stubbornly – on the side of reason, science and liberalism, values opposed by superstition, fundamentalism and political expediency. The world of Alexandria in the later years of the Roman Empire is one in which the forces of intolerance, whatever deity they profess, always seem to have the upper hand, and in which even ostensibly rational, compassionate rulers collaborate with the faith-based holy warriors.

– A.O. Scott, The New York Times
 

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