Film review – Agora (2009)

Agora: Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

After science fiction and horror, one of the genres with the most potential to allegorically explore contemporary issues is the historical drama. Exploring the ideological battle between the roles of religion, science and philosophy in social and political discourse, Agora is one such film. Set in the Roman Egyptian city Alexandria in the 4th century Agora is something of a revisionist epic that is less about male heroes in sandals achieving glory with their swords and more about celebrating the achievements of proto-feminist mathematician, philosopher and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) in an era of religious turmoil.

While the various men in the film are seen preaching the supposedly definitive virtues of their chosen religion, Hypatia is seen teaching, engaged in early scientific and astronomical research, and calling for calm and mutual respect. Her scientific work, in particular on the movement of celestial bodies, is often presented in Agora with the sort of grandiosity that other films reserve for the climax of a great battle scene. When Hypatia has her various breakthroughs the music swells and the tempo of the editing increases to heroically present such moments. In this way director and co-writer Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside) stylistically privileges the pursuit of knowledge and rational thought. On the other hand, at the conclusion of the first half of the film when the Christian hordes gain control of the city, over run the Library of the Serapeum and destroy its contents, the camera is turned upside-down to depict the triumph of religious fundamentalism over intellectual enquiry as an example of the world literally turning itself on its head.

Agora: Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)
Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

The most noticeable stylistic effect utilised by Amenábar are several moments throughout the film where the camera pulls back from an aerial shot of Alexandria to supposedly film Earth from space. Such shots effectively function as extreme establishing shots to locate the themes of the film as belonging to the entire planet, not just the specific time and place that Agora is set in. When the camera zooms up into space to look down upon Earth, which looks the same then as it does now, it not only puts the audience in the position of an absent god but shows us the universal and timeless nature of the film’s themes.

To give the film a human-interest angle and to create focal points for the various political and religious factions, Agora includes a love triangle subplot between Hypatia, one of her students, the aristocrat Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and one of her slaves, Davus (Max Minghella). As a woman devoted to her work teaching philosophy Hypatia has no desire to marry and end her professional career, plus she is extremely wary of the romanticised visions of what constitutes as love and demonstrates her cynicism by giving Orestes a very abject reminder of a significant element of womanhood that he probably wasn’t thinking about while publicly serenading her.

Agora: Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella)
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella)

Unfortunately, by giving the love-triangle narrative so much status within the film, Agora comes dangerously close to undermining the way it presents Hypatia as a strong and independent woman. Despite the character’s rejection of marriage, she becomes too readily defined as an object of romantic desire by this very familiar narrative structure. Amid the changing balances of power throughout the film, Orestes and Davus support and defend Hypatia in their own ways but rather than the audience viewing their devotion as that of men in awe of her teachings, this view is clouded by the suggestion that they are just love sick.

Agora is a film more to be admired than truly enjoyed. It effectively dramatises the events that occurred in the life of a remarkable woman in order to critique the intrusiveness of religion on intellectual and political discourse. Made at a time when pockets of the Christian Right are increasingly attempting to depict other religious groups as violent barbarians, Agora is also commendable for reminding audiences about the less than noble origins of Christianity. However, Agora is ultimately weighed down by the lumbering nature of the historical epic genre. The sweeping shots of the reconstructed settings and the elaborate crowd scenes are impressive but feel strikingly empty in contrast to the core of the film, which is Hypatia’s relentless philosophical and scientific enquiry. Agora could have been a powerfully subversive feminist film, but while it does have its moments it never truly lives up to its ambitious potential.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. A very thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. The film was beautifully shot and a bit uneven. Amenabar also distorted some history in service to his art (the Library didn’t end that way and Synesius wasn’t a jerk), but that’s what artists do. I go to the movies for entertainment, not history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

  2. I have to admire the thoughtfulness you gave to your review. However, I find it difficult to watch supposedly history-based films that are historically inaccurate. Where were the Egyptians in the film? I know this is post-Hellenist, Roman Egypt, but the majority of people would have been Bedu, Semetic and not nearly exclusively Caucasian, as in the film. I also felt, in addition to being horribly edited, written and directed, this film suffers from an insultingly preachy pendantic quality. It shoots for a kind of social and scientific political correctness out of place for the era, and when it does so it does it with themes so obvious (ie. “are we not all the same”) that I just rolled my eyes, wondering why movie makers dont ever study real history before they make a historic epic. Sigh. Not at ridiculous as Cate Blanchett killing French special forces in Scott’s unfortunate Robin Hood, but not a watchable film for me

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