Agora is an odd duck, a cautionary tale for our fundamentalist times disguised as a swords-and-sandal epic. It’s also a defense of science and rational thinking that uses simplification and soundbites to make its case. The setting is Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of the 4th century A.D., just before and after the destruction of its great library by a rampaging Christian mob. At the start of the story, Christianity is on the rise and the Pagans have become a smaller minority than they realize, though they still hold the reins of power. Over the next few years, the Christians gain ascendance, trashing the library that was also the Pagan’s temple and converting nearly all the Pagan holdouts or intimidating them into submission.
One of those holdouts is the movie’s heroine, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a brilliant young philosopher and astronomer who has taught some of the city’s most privileged young men. Hypatia’s students adore her, of course. Her mind is part of the attraction, but it’s not the whole thing, any more than people used to read Playboy for the articles. A light-bathed, large-eyed beauty, Hypatia is another of the saintly objects of desire Weisz specializes in, and the camera indulges in a fair amount of ogling, including a shot of her emerging from her bath like Venus on the half shell.
Luckily for Hypatia, many of her smitten students grow up to be prominent leaders, so she retains her privileged position for some time, exploring the mysteries of the cosmos while advising the council that rules Alexandria. She urges them to maintain her secular humanist vision of the brotherhood of man against the fundamentalist demonization by one religious group of all others that is bloodying the streets of the city. They try to hold the line, but the Christians are on a crusade, battling first the Pagans and then the Jews for political control.
Like the bad guys in a cowboy movie, the Christians always wear black, underlining their implied connection with the Taliban. Like the Taliban, they destroy other people’s religious artifacts and send men out in the street to make sure the citizens adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of their holy book’s moral code. Also like the Taliban, these Christians preach the subjugation of women. That’s what ultimately leads to Hypatia’s gory demise, as a Christian mob reportedly scraped the flesh off her bones and dragged her mutilated body through the streets. The filmmakers mercifully rewrite that horrendous ending, but not until her killers tell her what they have planned. It’s a smart and moral decision: By then, the film has shown us enough primitive slaughter that we can imagine what she was in for. Just thinking about that good woman enduring that kind of brutality is bad enough, and it avoids playing into her killers’ hands by making a spectacle of her death. It’s like mourning the beheading of Daniel Pearl while refusing to watch the video.
In the past, director Alejandro Amenábar showed more interest in exploring our psyches than our politics, specializing in moody, dreamlike character studies like Open Your Eyes, The Others, and The Sea Inside. Something seems to have convinced him, like Hypatia, that these times require rational humanists to stand up for their beliefs, subtlety be damned. Maybe it’s his family history: His mother lived through the Spanish Civil War and fled Franco’s Spain for Chile, only to go back again when Amenábar was a baby, as another fascist dictator, Augusto Pinochet, prepared to take over Chile. And maybe that sense of urgency has overridden his instincts as a storyteller, or made him decide he needed to work with a blunter instrument than usual.
Whatever the reason, Agora uses the same crude tools as most costume dramas set in classical times. There are the one-note supporting characters, most of them stiff and humorless (though Ashraf Barhom steals the show as Ammonius, a gap-toothed Christian zealot who seems capable of anything). There’s the stilted dialogue, delivered in orotund Oxbridge accents and often freighted with clunky symbolism. (Hypatia, struck by a thought about her astronomical explorations, says to her slave: “What if we dared to look at the world just as it is?”) There are self-conscious extras slowly traversing the set in artfully placed patterns and dramatic aerial shots of menacing mobs, including one of black-clad Christians swarming to attack the library like ants on the warpath. There are the monumental buildings and earth-colored streets and drapey costumes, none of which look quite lived-in enough to let us forget that we’re watching contemporary actors on a set. And there’s unconvincing “aging” of the main characters during the last part of the movie; all but Hypatia, that is, since she never looks a day older.
If she was anything like the character portrayed in this movie, Hypatia probably wouldn’t have thought much of Agora, but she might have been wrong about that. It’s not for me either, but I’m glad I saw it, since I learned something about her. And I wonder if her own life and death is proof of the futility of her noble efforts: You can’t defeat mob-think with rational arguments. But a movie like this, which aims at the heart rather than the head, might get some people to think twice.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.