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AGORA (2010) - Review

AGORA Film Poster - French

It's very rare to find a high-budget historical film made about the life of an obscure female historical figure. It's even more rare if such a film is actually good. Thankfully, Alejandro Amenábar's Agora is both. Released in the U.S. in 2010, the movie tells the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, the famed female astronomer and mathematician who was brutally martyred at the hands of a Christian mob in the early 5th century C.E. While the film fictionalizes some elements of Hypatia's life (more on that below), Agora surprisingly gets many aspects of the philosopher's character correct, and is on the whole credible and historically accurate.

Before I go too much into the details of the plot, let me just say this: Agora is a stunning film. Its cinematography is truly gorgeous, and to the credit of Amenábar, pretty much every scene in the movie stands out visually in its own unique way. The use of physical sets, props, and action sequences essentially unhindered by CGI gives Agora the sense of being grounded in reality and the historical location/time period it sets out to portray. As a viewer, you are pulled into Hypatia's world and feel as if, for two hours of your life, you're actually walking the streets of ancient Alexandria. Part of what gives Agora this realistic quality is the film's graphic portrayals of violence. Don't be fooled, Agora (rated R) isn't your average biopic: when pagan and Christian mobs are going at it outside of the Serapeum, they're really going at it.

The film begins in 391 C.E., with Hypatia (masterfully interpreted by Rachel Weisz) teaching a group of her young pupils about astronomy. This is a theme that will carry throughout the film: Hypatia is perplexed by the accepted Ptolemaic model of the solar system (which suggested that the Earth was the center of the universe and all other stars and planets orbited around it), and devotes her life to disproving it. Among her class are the pagan Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a young Christian named Synesius (Rupert Evans), and Hypatia's slave, Davus (Max Minghella). Davus is a fictional character created to serve the movie's story: he eventually converts to Christianity and provides Agora with an outlet to express the Christian side of the conflict in Alexandria. In the film's first act, there's some tension set up between Hypatia, Orestes, and Davus, as the two young men both seek (unsuccessfully) to win her hand. This setup never really evolves into the clichéd "love triangle," however, and it allows Agora to express, albeit fictionally, the intense loyalty, respect, and admiration Hypatia's pupils felt for their great teacher.

Fairly early on in the movie comes the siege and destruction of the Serapeum. In one of Agora's most painful and emotionally touching moments, Hypatia desperately tries to shove as many of the remaining scrolls from the Library of Alexandria into her arms as she can, before the Christian mobs enter the complex and destroy its treasured collection. Following the real historical chain of events, the Serapeum is razed, Christianity becomes the dominant force in Alexandria, and pagans are prohibited from publicly worshipping their pantheon of gods.

Jumping ahead in time to ca. 412 C.E., Agora explores the rise of Cyril (Sami Samir) and the heightening tensions between Alexandria's Christian and Jewish communities. At this time, Hypatia is still teaching philosophy and astronomy, but on a much smaller scale; she is also continuing her work studying the arrangement of the solar system and the possibility of planets having elliptical orbits. Orestes has converted to Christianity and become the Prefect of Alexandria, constantly consulting Hypatia for her advice on moral and intellectual matters. The philosopher also keeps in contact with Synesius, now the Bishop of Cyrene, who arrives in Alexandria for the film's final act. Bishop Cyril, however, disapproves of both Orestes and his close relationship with Hypatia, and uses scriptural precedent to denounce Hypatia and her work, accusing her of "witchcraft" and heresy for her scientific pursuits and her refusal to be subservient to men. Agora really shines when it comes to portraying the complex emotions of Orestes and Synesius as they try to reconcile their personal loyalties to their former teacher with the expected role of women in Alexandria's strict Christian society. The two men ask Hypatia to be publicly baptized for her own protection against Cyril and his extremists, but she refuses. The film ends with Hypatia being kidnapped by a Christian mob (Davus among them), taken to the Caesarium, and killed. The only historical point I find fault with in this film is the fact that in Agora Davus chooses to suffocate Hypatia as an act of mercy before his compatriots can stone her (a somewhat redeeming moment for his character). This creative decision was obviously made to soften the horrific nature of Hypatia's death, and although it's not not factually correct, it's completely understandable.

Overall, I loved this movie! It's one thing to read Hypatia's story on paper, and another to have it brought to life on the screen in such a skillful way. I would abolsutely recommend Agora to anyone interested in Hypatia's story, Alexandria, or Greco-Egyptian history in general. 5/5 Pharaohs!

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