Agora is as powerful a movie about sectarian violence as I think has ever been made. That it takes place long ago intensifies its power because it’s so much like what’s happening in the world today.
The film is set in 4th Century Egypt, when the Pagans run the great city of Alexandria while the Christians, recently legitimized in the Roman empire, have become increasingly numerous. Beleaguered by the Christians, the Pagans attack the Christians and then the Christians attack the pagans – all attacks cruelly vicious. As the Christians amass power, they take on the third Great Religion present in Alexandria, the Jews, who retaliate, the Christians then seizing the opportunity to drive them out of Alexandria — a new Exodus. It’s now clear that the Christians will stop at nothing in their will to “purify” Alexandria by making it fully Christian. Convert or else.
The story’s dramatized through the life of Hypatia – an actual person – a brilliant woman who wrote and lectured in Alexandria on Mathematics, Philosophy and Astronomy and had influence in matters of state. In the romanticized film, she’s loved secretly by Davus, who’s both a student at her lectures and her slave. Here in a nutshell is one of the great tensions of the classical world – it’s liberality and willingness to search and explore ideas and its dependence on slavery. Davus the slave is right there in Hypatia’s class along with the rich and high born Orestes, who also loves Hypatia. She, however, spurns all lovers in order to remain free of even loving male domination to carry out fully her life of teaching and inquiry.
Much of the action takes place in and around the famous library of Alexandria which housed the wisdom of the ancient world and the imminent threat to the books by those who hate their teachings is one of the great dramatic themes of the film.
Loving Hypatia but detesting his position as a slave, Davus joins the Christians with an implied possibility of being freed from slavery (though it’s actually Hypatia who releases the locked slave’s collar from around his neck). Orestes converts to Christianity though we’re led to believe he is one of those who say the words without truly converting within, and becomes Prefect, the top position in Alexandria, where he continues to love Hypatia — platonically — though he cannot follow some of her more brilliant astronomical perceptions, which really are brilliant!
One of the things I love about this movie is it’s great to see her thinking! Although Hypatia’s writings haven’t survived, her use of deduction in the film to come close to understanding essentials of modern science, including the rotation of the round earth, is well within the framework of the ancient philosophers.
How does this intelligent woman who refuses to accept a subordinate “woman’s role” fare in the increasingly intolerant Alexandria? It didn’t work out well for her in history. I’ll leave it to you to see what happens to her in the movie, but this isn’t a film that pulls its punches.
Rachel Weisz is a little sweet-voiced for Hypatia but lovely to watch. Max Minghella is not a natural actor but he works hard and does the job as Davus. Oscar Isaac as the ironic but deep feeling Orestes has real star power. The dialog in Agora is not its strong point, but the film more than makes up for it by the dramatic and fundamentally honest telling of its tragic and compelling story. Agora is a gripping and important film about the end of the ancient world and origins of the new era.