Note: Technically, this post indulges in some spoilers, but as the movie in question is based on historical fact, I didn’t see the point in being coy. Plus, to write about what I wanted to write about, I had to get into a few major plot points. Be forewarned.
Despite being one of the highest grossing films in the history of Spain, Agora (which features an English-speaking cast) is showing on fewer than a handful of screens in the United States, and given its subject matter, it’s not difficult to figure out why. The movie is at the very least deeply skeptical of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and that’s not exactly a welcome perspective in this country.
Yet it’s not a malicious movie. It has more nuance than I expected, and with Rachel Weisz’s luminous, compassionate performance at its center, it could never be hateful. Agora won’t ever be a blockbuster here, but surely this compelling, provocative film could find more of an audience—more than just a few theaters’ worth—given a chance.
In a way, Agora is a biopic, though as the title suggests, it aspires to much more than recounting the life of a single individual. (An agora was not only the central marketplace of a Greek or Roman city but also, more important, the center of civic life, a place of meeting and debate.) Nitpicking over genre aside, however, the fifth-century astronomer-philosopher Hypatia (played by Weisz) is the protagonist. The filmmakers had considerable flexibility in telling her story as none of her writings survive—she is now as much a character of myth as a historical figure—but it is generally accepted that Hypatia of Alexandria was a renowned scholar and teacher, numbering followers of traditional Greco-Roman polytheism as well as Christians among her students, and that is what the movie shows.
From there, known facts mix with informed speculation and fictional embroidery. In Agora, Hypatia’s students at the Library of Alexandria include Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a polytheist nursing an infatuation with her, and Synesius (Rupert Evans), a Christian whom most intellectuals in Alexandria regard with suspicion. Hypatia also has an ever-present slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who has learned a great deal about astronomy from his mistress and developed a passion for her even more hopeless than Orestes’s. Meanwhile, in Alexandria’s agora, Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) has been winning converts to Christianity with his fervid preaching, which many of the old-guard polytheists—among them Hypatia’s father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), the chief librarian—take as sacrilege and personal affront.
None of this will end well, of course. After the Christians take control of the city, tensions become even greater—between moderates and zealots, Christians and polytheists, Christians and Jews, scientific and religious worldviews—much of it ultimately stemming from the struggle for power between the city’s imperial prefect and the religious patriarch Cyril (Sami Samir). Hypatia is not a pawn in that struggle, but neither is she a principal player, and that’s where much of the nuance comes into play.
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar—who also collaborated on the screenplay with his frequent writing partner Mateo Gil—Agora is an idiosyncratic movie, gentle but violent, delicate in its characterizations but often awkward in trying to explain obscure historical context. (This is a movie that requires intertitles not only at the beginning but also halfway through and again at the end.) Amenábar is fond of pulling the camera up, up, up, emphasizing the relative smallness of the people bustling around the agora, and sometimes flying clear into space until Earth itself is small and insignificant. The conceit makes sense—Hypatia’s theorizing on heliocentrism, geocentrism, and the orbits of the planets is a major theme of the film—but Amenábar overuses the device, and it’s a bit precious anyway.
The conceit is also, however, a reflection of the fact that Agora is a movie about ideas, and that’s to be commended. Weisz, in particular, beautifully conveys the joys and pains of discovery. Her Hypatia bounces on her toes as she discusses astronomical models and claps her hands when an experiment fails, because she has still learned something, just not what she had expected. Yet to hold on to her intellectual freedom, she has had to fashion herself as a kind of nun of science. She is a happy person, a fulfilled person, but Weisz hints at the sacrifices Hypatia has had to make. When she puts off the advances of an admirer by giving him a cloth soiled by her menstrual blood, meaning to convey that sexuality is not glorious but messy, even ugly (the anecdote dates at least to the tenth century), it’s hard not to think that this is as much what Hypatia must tell herself as what she must tell her would-be suitor. Weisz doesn’t oversell that point—one never gets the impression that this woman regrets the life choices she has made—but she does create an exquisitely human character, brilliant and brave yet subject to loneliness, blind spots, and doubts, as well.
The movie is similarly layered. The Parabalani, a Christian brotherhood serving as armed morality police in Alexandria, are terrifying, so it’s upsetting to see Davus become part of the group, yet we see, too, why Davus is initially attracted to the Christians. How could he not respond to the open-hearted generosity of the Beatitudes? How could he not feel called to a movement that sees him as a human being when even Hypatia, a kind mistress to the extent that a slave owner can be kind, clearly sees him as lower than herself and her aristocratic students? Minghella never loses sight of Davus’s dignity and humanity, and because of that, neither do we, even when his story takes dark turns.
And the portrayal of religion as a force of hate and oppression is indeed dark, especially because, though the use of violence might be extreme (and by no means do the Alexandrian Christians have a monopoly on it—the polytheists and Jews also have bloody hands), the debates over the role of tolerance in society and the unofficial religious requirement for public service feel painfully relevant. And when 1 Timothy 2 makes its inevitable appearance (“Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.”), the words are shocking precisely because they are so familiar and because they’re still there. One can argue about historical context or whether Galatians (“There is neither … male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) negates 1 Timothy’s vicious misogyny, but those ugly verses—along with so many benighted others—will always be there, in every Bible, ready to be used as weapons.
And not just against women (or unbelievers or whomever else). Tellingly, in Agora, one Christian uses that epistle against another. Wanting to undermine the city’s political leader, the city’s religious leader attacks the prefect for seeking advice from Hypatia, not only a woman but also a highly educated teacher (this is after the Library and all its ungodly texts have been destroyed) and likely an atheist (“My only religion is doubt”). The prefect protests—“I am as Christian as you are”—but one can’t reason with a mob or out-zeal a zealot, and Hypatia, who staunchly refuses to convert, pays the ultimate price.
It would be expedient for her to convert, of course, but questioning what she believes about the universe means everything to her—in the end, it is the only thing that gives her life meaning—and giving her life over to faith (at least in fifth-century Alexandria) would destroy that. “You don’t question what you believe, or cannot—I must,” she gently tells one friend pushing her to take the easy way out, knowing damn well that her refusal will likely result in her meeting a very hard end. In short, Agora slyly inverts the familiar tale of Christian martyrdom, with the steadfast virginal woman refusing to accept Christ rather than deny him.
Perhaps even more unsettling than Hypatia’s martyrdom, though, are the scenes that broaden the tragedy, for at its best, Agora isn’t about one woman’s premature death but rather about an entire city of learning being violently shut down. Describing a setting as a character in a film is a cliché, but there’s some truth to it here. By the end of the film, the lovingly recreated details of Alexandria’s agora and library are very familiar, and watching its statues topple and scrolls burn is heartbreaking—a reminder than desecration, like martyrdom, can take many forms.