Condemned to Repeat It
How can it be that this powerful, exciting, provocative movie has been all but overlooked this year? Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, a film this epic, this relevant, this emotional would have been celebrated by the industry and by audiences as a great entertainment that was also great, important storytelling with something vital to say about the state of our world today. It would be an Oscar frontrunner at this point. We’d be talking animatedly about fantastic performances — some of them starmaking, for the lesser known among the cast — and gorgeous cinematography and daring directorial approaches to its subject.
Instead, Agora was released unceremoniously this spring onto two screens in North America — it had opened relatively much wider in the U.K. a few weeks earlier, on 103 screens — and never went wider than 17 screens. Why? This is not a difficult movie. Hell, it’s not even subtitled: though it is set in ancient Roman Egypt, it follows the filmic tradition of having everyone speak in English with plummy British accents, even though it is, in fact, a Spanish production. Director Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside, The Others) clearly intended this for as wide an audience as globally released films can get.
So what happened?
What happened is, ironically, that what the film depicts is so close a parallel to today — and intentionally so; this is a vigorously metaphoric movie — that in retrospect, it was almost inevitable that the culture wouldn’t want to hear it, wouldn’t know how to hear it. For this is the story of the moment, almost the precise moment, when the erudition of the classical world fell into the Dark Ages, when reason and intellectualism were forced aside by superstition and willful ignorance and religious extremism, when books were burned and learning derided and freethought squashed.
The agora was, in the ancient Greek world, the town square, the gathering place for markets and public debates; but it was also, more symbolically, the public sphere. And what happens almost instantly, as we delve into this world of fourth-century AD Alexandria, is that the upstart death-cult Christians are shouting down the mainstream, practical pagans in the agora, and taunting, threatening, and even torturing those who dare to confront them and their scary, radical views. From the fracas we go to the nearby class of philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz: The Brothers Bloom, Definitely, Maybe), who is calmly and quietly thrilling her disciples with her wisdom on the motions of the stars and the actions of gravity. In this forum, there are disagreements — even ones over religion, for at least one of her students is a vocal Christian — but they are not so important here. “We are brothers,” the pagan (perhaps even atheist) Hypatia tells her students: they have much more in common than small differences can possibly divide them.
This was no perfect world, as Amenabar and his frequent cowriter Mateo Gil depict it, though it is an appealingly familiar place, a bustling, cosmopolitan city. There is nothing of the twee and historical about this Alexandria — it is a modern place, and these are modern people… because of course they would have thought themselves as sophisticated and as worldly as human beings had ever been, and they would have been right. (Amenabar’s choice to, more than once, look down on Alexandria from high in orbit, letting us see the full curve of the planet and reminding us that his story is about, literally, our world and our species, and that the passing of a few years between now and then is next to nothing, in grand scheme of the universe, is one of the most absolutely exhilarating things I’ve seen on film this year. We are not Christian or Jew or pagan or white or black or whatever other identity we cling to or wish to throw off: we are people of Earth.)
But this is a civilization in which slavery and dramatic caste divides are considered so normal as to not be noticed… and Hypatia has her own blinders about the society she lives in. We can’t call these blinders flaws, for she is very much a woman of her time, but it is her individual quirks as they represent the cracks in her world that drive the conflict here as much as larger cultural matters do. Politics and religion become enmeshed and bring down this society — which is enlightened in many ways — because of the many ways in which it is not enlightened. Christianity is able to secure such a powerful foothold in part because it appeals so deeply to an otherwise helpless slave class…
And so Hypatia’s unwitting spurning of the slave boy who worships her, Davus (Max Minghella: The Social Network, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), will impact her personally as everything crumbles around her, as will her rejection of the romantic overtures of one student, pretty Orestes (Oscar Isaac: Robin Hood, Body of Lies), and as will the impact she has on another student, Christian Synesius (Rupert Evans: Hellboy), through her philosophy.
Through it all, Agora remains a fiercely intimate, personal film: we share in the infuriating heartbreak Hypatia experiences as Christians storm the magnificent library, burning the scrolls and destroying the building, this place of demon learning. Yet she remains resolute, even years later, as the Christians solidify their new dominance and her former students now struggle with reconciling their consciences with practical realities — Orestes is now city prefect, and a convert to Christianity out of political necessity; Synesius is a bishop, but far less radical than his brethren. She remains a freethinker even as this becomes more and more actually dangerous… and she is so rare a character on film, a true scientist. She was wrong, in those earlier explanations about the stars and gravity, but she’s wrong in a thrillingly scientifically minded way that had to be gone through on the way to being right. In another scene, she will be delighted to have her expectations of what should happen during an experiment with gravity proven wrong, because — as all true scientists appreciate — being definitively wrong about something is as exciting as being definitively right.
There’s a tinge of the science fictional about Agora, in how it tells its story — those views of Earth from space are so wonderfully unexpected in a movie like this — but also in how it insists on the rightness of thinking, actually using one’s capacity for reason, even if the thinking turns out to be wrong, over the fallacies of superstition, which never allows questioning. There’s drama and intrigue in how Hypatia’s thought processes lead her to the solution to a problem she has been pondering since the beginning of the film: Just why do Ptolemy’s theories about how the planets circle the Earth feel so wrong?
Hypatia and her thinking — and her elegant, glorious solution to the problem of Ptolemy! — get crowded out of the agora, out of the public sphere, in a horrifically tragic way. And I can’t help but feel that Agora the film never had a chance in our public sphere today. Is there any room for a movie about a freethinking woman scientist when the forces of ignorance and violence are on the ascendance? Now that Agora is available on DVD, I urge everyone who appreciates stirring, stimulating filmmaking to check it out and be terrified by how contemporary it feels.