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Monday, January 11, 2016




In Agora, director Alejandro Amenabar's 2009 historical drama of religious tumult between Romans, Jews, and Christians, the city of Alexandria circa 391 A.D. just ain't big enough for the three of them. Amidst a hotbed of fanatical strife over whose god is the god who ought to be God, a luminous Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia, a mathematician, scientist and philosopher who teaches at the Ptolemic School in the fabled Library of Alexandria. Hypatia, an equal opportunity instructor, counts among her students Roman nobles and slaves alike. Her three prized students are Orestes (a young Oscar Isaac), the future Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Synesius (Rupert Evans), a future Bishop of the aggressively growing Christian faith, and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia's deeply conflicted personal slave. Orestes and Davus both clearly love Hypatia, though she rather grossly rejects any attempt to woo her by offering up a rag stained with her menstrual blood. Still, Hypatia's "trying to prove the heliocentric model of the solar system (does the Earth revolve around the sun, how and why?)" is a milkshake that brings the boys to the yard. 

The yard in question is the "agora," the open meeting space in Alexandria which becomes a battleground of religious persecution. The growing and increasingly fanatical Christian population, led by Cyril (Sami Samir) and rabble roused by his number one fanatic Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), declared holy war on the Romans and their polytheistic belief system, inciting a riot that drives the Romans to take refuge in the Library of Alexandria. When the Roman Emperor abandons Alexandria to the Christian hordes, they sack the Library. All the "pagan" symbols are destroyed and much of the accumulated wisdom of antiquity is lost. A decade passes and Alexandria continues to be a powderkeg. Though all the Romans have converted to Christianity, the Christians continue to consolidate their power and begin targeting the Jews in the city. The Christians and Jews take turns inciting and murdering each other; it's all Orestes, now Prefect and in way over his head, can do to maintain an uneasy peace.  Much like Springfield in The Simpsons, Alexandria can barely go one day without a riot. Inevitably, the Christians, looking for new enemies to target with righteous ire, turn their attention to women, deemed as inferior "as written in the Scriptures." Unfortunately, as Agora has it, there's only one woman in all of Alexandria (not a joke, Weisz is the only woman in the cast). Hypatia, who loves the science-y stuff and has absolutely no interest in religion of any sort, is condemned and branded a witch. Refusing the pleas of her former students still in love with her to convert, Hypatia's fate is sealed, though not before she successfully proves the Earth revolves around the sun. 

Agora takes a withering view of these early Christians, though historically speaking, this depiction isn't unfair. The conversion of people of "pagan" and "heathen" religions to Christianity often happened by violence. Even after converting all the Romans and marginalizing the Jews in Alexandria, the Christians of Agora continue to question the devotion of the converted. Indeed, Cyril, as head of his church, needs to do so in order to maintain the loyalty of his fanatical faithful. Agora boasts exceptional performances from Weisz, Isaac, Minghella, and Evans, as well as sumptuous sets and production design. Also, having Michael Lonsdale, who was once the villainous Hugo Drax in the James Bond adventure Moonraker, play the father of Weisz, who is married in real life to current 007 Daniel Craig, was a neat bit of casting. Agora unfolds in a manner where the characters (and the viewers) can't help but feel they're merely pawns to be sacrificed to a sad end. Amenabar plays God with his vivid cinematography, employing a favorite trick of macro-zooming out into space to regard the entire planet Earth with a "God's eye" view. Inevitability hangs over the brilliant but doomed Hypatia and the well-meaning people of Agora, like a Sword of Damocles poised to drop from the heavens, and does.