Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), Agora
To some, the name Alejandro Amenábar sparks instant interest. But if it does not, let me refresh your memory. In 1997, he wrote (with Mateo Gil) and directed the Spanish film Open Your Eyes -- which North American audiences know better by its ultra-strange U.S. remake Vanilla Sky. 2001 marked his English film premiere, the eerie Nicole Kidman thriller The Others (the only feature Gil hasn't co-written). And then in 2004, he went back to Spanish filmmaking with the Javier Bardem-starring Oscar winner The Sea Inside. Now he's grabbed the likes of Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, and Oscar Isaac for a film that doesn't journey through facial reconstruction, ghosts, or euthanasia. It's a gorgeous, thought-provoking Roman epic called Agora.
The film focuses on one of the most impressive female figures in history – Hypatia, a leading thinker in the Rome-governed Alexandria, considered to be the first notable woman of mathematics. She studied philosophy and astronomy, and both pagan and Christian students from far and wide came together to study under her. "For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more."
The film opens in 391 A.D. Alexandria. The streets are boiling with strife and clashes of faith as Christianity gains power, and men like Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) make grand speeches and perform "miracles" to sway the disenfranchised commoners. Meanwhile, inside the walls of the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia struggles to extinguish the religious turmoil of her students whilst also staying free of romantic interest. Her slave Davus (Max Minghella) loves her, but cannot tell her, while her student Orestes takes every chance to make his love for her known – even after being rebuffed by her menstrual rags.
When a Roman is killed during one of Ammonius' speeches, "proving" his God's power on hot coals, everything changes, setting off a never-ending stream of desperate violence mixed with overwrought feelings of entitlement. Back and forth, the two sides fight -- each is desperate for something, whether that be the Christians' desire to gain power or the pagans' desire to keep theirs -- and both feel too entitled to make any concessions. The death of the Roman leads to bloody retaliation in the streets, and ultimately, the destruction of the Library and the knowledge it contains, as well as the life Hypatia has always known. Even Davus leaves her to join Ammonius.
Fast forward to many years later, and the same battles continue. However, now almost everyone, including prefect Orestes, is Christian. Now the religious turmoil is focused on the Jews, as well as women and children. Hypatia's rights and political influence are no longer secure, and this leads to her horrific and heart-breaking end. On paper, it stretches the bounds of horrific violent acts, but even watered down for the big screen, it packs a gut-wrenching punch you can't avoid.
It would be easy to say that this is an anti-Christian film, but to do so is utterly oversimplified and inaccurate. Beyond Hypatia's desire for all faiths to exist peacefully, no one side is all good or bad. Both the pagans and the Christians have their moments of honor – the quests for knowledge from the former, and the feeding and care of the masses for the latter – while also partaking in heinous violence; it is this balance that drives the film.
The production design, score, look, and momentum of the film are all grand to the extreme, but the path of Hypatia's story and the fall of Roman Alexandria are perfectly balanced. The gorgeousness and epic feel doesn't seep into the story and drive a path of twists for the sake of cinema. This isn't a film like Troy or Alexander where spectacle trumps story. Agora lets the history speak for itself – becoming both a powerful look at the past while also being an important lesson for today in a world fraught with religious intolerance and quests to reign supreme.
Even more remarkable is the characterization of Hypatia. Over and over again in Hollywood, even the most strong and epic of women are usually reduced to romance and stereotypically feminine pursuits, but Amenabar and Gil remain perfectly loyal to the little we know about Hypatia. Sure, they add some romantic wrenches, but every bit of romance and passion rests with the men. We don't see Hypatia swoon with that far-off, happily romantic look in her eyes; those moments are reserved for Orestes and Davus. She is, from the beginning to the end, in love with learning and thought, and nothing else.
The insistence on thought and intellectualism will probably be the barrier that keeps Agora from being a classic, mainstream hit. But I can tell you this: There is no film that has hit me to the core like Agora has, even well after the dimmed lights shone again. If you see this movie with your heart, exploring the dangers of zealotry and fear, and the ridiculousness of female intellectualism being a danger, you can't help but be changed and inspired.