After Sucker Punch it was a pleasure to sit down today to Agora, a film which has at its heart a remarkable but little known woman from history. Intelligent and charismatic but, as portrayed here, immune to the overtures of her admirers, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) was a scientist and astronomer in late 4th-century Alexandria. Although this was a city lauded as a centre for the most sophisticated and advanced learning for centuries, the film focuses on a time when science took a distant second place to increasingly violent expressions of religious fanaticism. A time when it could be dangerous for suggesting that it wasn’t God that directed earth’s path through the night sky. Particularly dangerous, if a woman were to think and teach these heresies.
Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia inspires all those she teaches, even the slave at her feet, as she explains why the earth is at the heart of a perfect celestial circle. Those she teaches succumb, especially Orestes (Oscar Isaac), later the Roman Governor of the city. But that isn’t the subject of Agora. Hypatia has little interest in such feelings, despite a compassion for humanity as a whole. As Hypatia seeks to protect the scholars and scrolls of the Library of Alexandria against the Christian mob, it’s clear that the real message of Agora is that science is the only truth, while religion – whether it’s paganism, Christianity or Judaism – is a brutal destroyer of life and knowledge.
Agora is divided into two parts: the first takes place before the Library is sacked; the second describes events once Alexandria has become a Christian anti-pagan, anti-Semitic city, under the control of Cyril (Sammy Samir), later to be saint but throughout an abomination. Despite events going on around her, even as female intellectuals are judged to be witches – after all, Jesus was followed by 12 men with not a woman among them – Hypatia continues to be driven to discover the path of the earth and the other celestial orbs. Finally, she concludes that the path must instead be an elipse, an idea that was not to be picked up on again until the 17th century.
But things can’t end well for Hypatia in this Alexandria. This is the end of the classical age. Intellectual thought is now at the mercy of fanaticism. The violence outside the doors of the Library cannot be held at bay indefinitely.
Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) has created a visually beautiful film, noticeable for its panning out from a vividly realised Alexandria into the starry sky, which fascinated Hypatia so much. However, this is also an emotionless film because Hypatia’s mind is forever distracted by what is going on above. While the men she teaches take sides, she remains fixed to the cause of science. But Rachel Weisz, as usual, is compelling and the tragedy is that we can see what’s coming while she cannot. It was a pleasure to get to know a little about such a woman who has been largely lost to history.
Agora received a limited theatrical release but is now available on DVD (very cheaply). Extras comprise deleted scenes.