I started to watch the movie Agora (meaning public place or place of assembly in Ancient Greek) on television quite by chance and almost reluctantly as I was not really in the mood for a swords and sandals epic. How wrong I was! Though the story takes place in Ancient Alexandria, it has absolutely none of the cliches that you expect from a classic swords and sandals epic.
The main character Hypatia, a real woman who was renown in those times as a brilliant astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and teacher, is played by Rachel Weisz, who, despite her beauty, resists the temptation to play up her sex appeal. Soon, we see past her physical attributes and like her students, it is with her mind and vision that we fall in love with. Never have math and astronomy looked so appealing as when Hypatia tries to explain why it is the earth that orbits around the sun and not vice-versa. Though Hypatia is by no means a perfect heroine. Hypatia is brilliant but at the same time blind and flawed. She urges Christians and Pagans to act as "brothers" yet fails to see the injustice in treating slaves like riff raff including her own personal slaves, Davus, played by Max Minghella, and Aspasius, played by Homayoun Ershadi, whom I had not had the pleasure of seeing in a film since he starred in Abbas Kiarostami's award-winning Taste of Cherry, more than a decade earlier.
Ershadi's protrayal of Aspasius, both confident and scientific assistant to Hypatia, is so moving. Each pause before he speaks, each stare in his eyes, give us clues as to what he is really thinking as a man but what he has to edit and utter in front of his Master, as a slave who knows his place all too well but is not resigned to it. It is obvious he was not born into servility. In each of his wistful expressions, one can see the longing for his former life, where he was assuredly himself a man of quite high education and position.
In this beautiful film by Alejandro Amenabar, whom you may know from his work in the Nicole Kidman ghost story The Others, another film that turned the genre on its head, there are no characters who can be simplistically labeled good or evil. At first, seeing Christians being attacked by the pagans took me back to those 1950s "Christians fed to the lions" melodramas. Then, the Christians up the ante by retaliating tenfold against the pagans and destroying and burning the priceless books of the great Alexandria Library, rejecting them as pagan filth. They even have a militia called the Parabolani, whose lust for blood can only be equalled by their fanaticism, as they sing Hallelujah while decapitating women and children. The Jews are first portrayed as victims of religious intolerance. Then, we see them take matters into their own hands as they set a deadly trap against their enemies. Though the Roman Pagans are at least interested in the pursuit of knowledge, they too are crazed with bloodlust at the sight of their stone idols being pelted with rotten tomatos. Later, some of them quite spinelessly convert in order to gain political leverage, or even just to save their neck. The Roman Emperor Augustus has converted to Christianity but that does not make him any more merciful than when he was still suckling at the breast of Venus. Baby killers and stoners of women are proclaimed martyrs and saints. Only too human bishops are treated like deity. Slaves are not averse to rage and betrayal. It's like the protagonist in Camus' Fall said, I stopped defending widows and orphans when I realized orphans could be quite abusive and widows ferocious.
From time to time, as the bloodshed and chaos peak, Amenabar backs his camera away, up in the sky, to a bird's eye view of the city, then the country, the continent and finally Planet Earth, lost in a sea of stars, to remind us just how utterly absurd and microscopic the struggles of these ignorant insects are against the majestic mystery of the universe. It is precisely this mystery that Hypatia is concerned with unraveling, ultimately to her detriment. This movie is not condemning or condoning any religion. Ultimately, this movie is about the right to question. Anything, whether a religion or political or social or cultural edict, what have you, that demands absolute, unquestioning faith in one version of the truth, and makes questioning a sin, signals dark ages to come. As a woman of science, Hypatia "must" question. In this era where superstition and fear are still just as powerfully denying the quest for knowledge, just as it was in the times of Hypatia or Galileo for that matter, (stem cell research, global warming, intelligent (ha!) design anyone?) it is a shame that this fascinating movie was made and released with almost no effective marketing, of the type that makes Avatar or Inception a household name. Che Heyf! The few people who have taken an interest in the movie have criticized it for gross inaccuracies as compared to the real life historical characters. I think that Amenabar is completely within his right to take creative artistic license to construct this tale to fit his vision, especially when the end product is so unique, beautiful, and "egads" actually encourages you to think.
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