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A film review: 'Agora'

By Ralph Seccombe - posted Monday, 13 December 2010

The film Agora held my attention and is haunting after the event.

The murder of a philosopher in Alexandria in the 415th year of Our Lord is not an obvious subject for a film, but the part played by religion in the killing gives the film an obvious link with the present. Yet it is not simplistic. The baddies in the film are Christian fundamentalists but the movie is not an anti-Christian rant. It is rather a reflection on the effects of extremism and intolerance of any colour.

It does not build up to a surprising climax. I suppose that most who go to see it will know that the climax is the gruesome death of the central character, Hypatia, at the hands of a Christian mob spurred on by the Bible verse “suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim. 2:12) - sorry to spoil the ending for everybody else. A committed philosopher who refuses the Christian baptism which would preserve her life but not her freedom, she is a true heroine. Let’s call her a heroine because her sex matters: at one point her father, the philosopher Theon, contemplates giving her to some man in marriage but rejects the idea, because subjecting her to a man would deprive her of liberty, prized by her - and evidently by him, to his credit. Or we could be modern and call her a hero, which would accord with the thinking of Hypatia as depicted - content to be one of a group of “brothers” on an equal footing.


The story is told through a small number of lead characters, headed of course by Hypatia herself, who is often shown lecturing to students, her slave Davus at her side. Or at home musing on the “wanderers”, which move against the background of the fixed stars and which include the sun as well as the bodies we call the planets (wanderers). Davus is an interestingly conflicted character: a Christian who is granted liberty by Hypatia but who cannot bring himself to the full pitch of bigotry, misogyny and cruelty demanded by his membership of the parabolani, who in today’s Iran would be called morality police. It is this group rather than a disorganised mob which disposes of Hypatia in the end.

Bishop Cyril is a nasty bit of work, vigorously leading the world into the Dark Ages - and proud of it. Text on the screen at the end of the film raises our indignation by pointing out that this zealot became a saint posthumously. However, there is some balance: the film finds time to show the exercise of a Christian virtue - feeding the poor.

Hypatia’s father Theon is a fine polytheist of ancient tradition. Of the patrician class, he is the sort of person who finds it irritating that the upstart Christians have rights - a few years previously the sect was illegal. It is he, not a Christian, who initiates the first act of violence in the film. The Christians commit the first blasphemy, mocking the ancient gods, but the pagans unleash the killings, setting off a chain of events in which they are the ultimate losers.

Love interest is provided by the hopeless passion of Davus for the chaste Hypatia and the suit of Orestes, one of her students and later prefect (governor) of the city. In this capacity his function is to show that the civic authorities cannot control the violence of the Christians against the pagans and the Jews.

The scenery is more than incidental. It helps to create the atmosphere of Alexandria as a bustling commercial city, its harbour served by its famous lighthouse, the Pharos, which was a wonder of the ancient world. It is a multicultural city, with a Jewish population adding to the volatility. To update the song by Tom Lehrer:

Oh the pagans hate the Christians
And the Christians hate the pagans
And the faithful hate the thinkers
And everybody hates the Jews.


But back to the scenery: there were many long shots - very long. The camera was often zooming between shots of Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile to the entire African continent seen from space. This was a link with Hypatia’s daring speculations that the earth was perhaps moving around the sun in a heliocentric universe. Perhaps it also served to suggest that, seen in perspective, all humans are siblings, as she daringly believed.

A lot of the action took place in a great library, with its lecture theatres and treasured collection of scrolls. The depiction corrected any notions of today’s civic institution squeezed between the supermarket and the service station. This library was a temple, complete with religious statues and frescoes. In a sense, the Christians were justified in regarding it as enemy territory. Of course, the mob which violated the library and burnt scrolls was anti-intellectual, to put it mildly, regarding only one book - the Bible - as worthy of reverence. See any links here with advocates of creationism or intelligent design - or zealous opponents of the teaching of ethics in New South Wales schools? I am also led to wonder about the free flow of information in Qatar, China or WikiLeaks.

Rachael Weisz made a stirring and noble philosopher and credible human being on screen. The other stand-out performance was by Max Minghella as Davus. But some lines they had to manage sounded a bit stilted.

I note that the director, Alejandro Amenábar, studied at the Sciences Information Faculty at Madrid’s Complutense University. However, I deny that you need to be an atheist nerd to enjoy this film.

The only other film I have seen by Amenábar is The Others, starring Our Nicole. The earlier film is certainly more successful as narrative and enjoyable cinema. On the other hand, Agora is a far more substantial film, one to appreciate and chew over. I give it three stars.

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About the Author

Ralph Seccombe is a former public servant (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the United Nations).

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