The Sea Inside director Alejandro Amenabar’s new movie, Agora, depicts civilization turned upside down. The representation of 4th century Greco-Roman Alexandria, Egypt, before, during and after the rise of Judeo-Christianity is disturbing, unsettling, and, at times, hard to watch. Like a well-produced documentary, it is immensely interesting and thought-provoking.
Opening with bright light and a visually reinforced intellectual perspective that this great, ancient city is the center of man’s pursuit of knowledge, Agora (which means a place to exchange ideas) is agnostic about the conflict: a deadly contest between faith and reason. In one corner, we have pagan philosopher, teacher, and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), an exceptional figure instructing her male students at Alexandria’s grand library (not the one destroyed by Julius Caesar) and urging everyone—Christians, Jews, and pagans alike—to get along and think for themselves.
The north African city by the sea, beautifully rendered in this dusty epic, is teeming with all types, of every color, at the crossroads of civilization; the Roman Empire is near its end, Greek influence is on the wane, and Christians—ridiculed and subjugated, sometimes as slaves, rise in protest. With faith-based fanatics and moderates uniting against the ruling prefect, Hypatia’s teachings are doomed.
Against this backdrop, two young men are in love with Hypatia—Davus (Max Minghella), a dark-haired slave with an intelligent mind, and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a brave, brash student who advances upon her behind the bookcases and, later, leads the city as a converted Christian. In between, there is much battle, debate and denial—and Agora dramatically depicts it all.
In sweeping plot points set to a thunderous score, Mr. Amenabar gives us what is essentially the story of Davus the slave, a tormented soul who should exercise his rational faculty and does not, with catastrophic results. He adores passionate, scientific Hypatia yet he is repelled by her contradiction of accepting slavery and therefore Davus is receptive to the advances of a Christian street preacher, Ammonius (Shraf Barhom). Lulled into giving bread to the hungry, Davus at first accepts Jesus as his savior by default—who else will accept a slave?—but he follows instead of challenges.
Hypatia and her father, director of the library Theon (Michael Lonsdale), are thrust into obscurity when the believers in the movie’s most exciting scene assault the library. As the barbaric, hooded Christians storm the building, the freethinkers flee for their lives, shocked, bleeding, and clutching their scrolls while those who have faith destroy the creations of those who follow reason. Until then and thereafter, Hypatia is, in a certain sense, like an obsessed fanatic herself, questioning Ptolemy and developing her theories of the motion of the planets and proverbially fiddling while Rome burns, tolerant of or oblivious to the hordes around her.
Heads roll when the Christians seize power and heads will roll again but she stubbornly keeps her head in the stars, feet not firmly planted on the ground, contrary to her own lessons. She studies circles, thinking, integrating, and striving to find the center, yet she chooses not to see that she is at the center of a firestorm that will threaten civilization and plunge mankind into darkness.
Hypatia’s denial writ large is hosted by her suitor, Orestes, who gradually ascends in matters of state, adapting to the times like a typical pragmatist while managing never to hold any consistent philosophical principles. With Christians in control, with the Jews none too pleased about it (with good reason), Agora shifts to Alexandria’s post-Christian rule—and the rise of the fundamentalists.
Keeping track of shifting alliances is easy, if you pay attention, and when the monastic order that fed bread to the needy, a militaristic gang now led by Cyril (Sammy Samir) the power-lusting fundamentalist, seizes total control of the city, it is not surprising. Yet, to Mr. Amenabar’s credit, what subsequently takes place remains deeply moving, even shocking, and Agora is a powerful expression of religious fundamentalism in practice.
When the stories of Davus, Orestes, and Hypatia converge, there is only emptiness and despair, as all three refuse to see reality as it is and pay a price that crushes each person. The last act of Agora is brutal—painful to watch, though irresistible—with gruesome scenes of people stoned and burned to death as the most consistent practitioners of Judeo-Christianity step up and stake their claim on what the Hyaptias and Theons and their lesser accomplices have sanctioned: commanding that women cover themselves, submit to silence, and that every human kneel in deference to God. The books burn, the thinkers are persecuted and belligerent cries of “Alleluia!” echo like chants of “Allahu Akbar!” off the walls of the city named for Alexander the Great.
The mighty Orestes, so assiduously compromising and doing “whatever works” in appeasement of the Christians, is reduced to a shell of his former self. Hypatia, who at once had challenged and enchanted Alexandria with her bold questions—“what do you think?”, “what about here on earth?”, and her best line: “What if we dared to look at the world just as it is?”—never realizes that she doesn’t apply her commitment to philosophy—“Rethink everything!”—to her own life; she is excruciatingly left to an act of mercy that makes her nothing more than another Judeo-Christian martyr, completing the circle of a religious dictatorship with nothing at its center. The Dark Ages have begun.
The meaning of Agora, expertly told and visualized by its young creator, Alejandro Amenabar, ultimately lies in the character of Davus. Angry, passionate, intelligent, and pent-up with potential for true greatness—that which is possible to man—he exits the arena broken, having regressed throughout the picture into a primitive beast bearing no relation to the bright young student whom we saw when this tragic story began. As Davus, Minghella is pitch perfect. So is the entire cast.
Though Agora is too self-conscious, overblown, and obvious in its contention that man is unimportant in the universe, what is suddenly the most relevant movie in years offers a searing though imperfect dramatization of what the rise of religion and dictatorship means for man. In an age of government control and religious fundamentalism, that makes Agora a movie every person—believer and infidel alike—should rush out to see.