November 17, 2010
Not exactly your standard historical epic, Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora (2009) is about as ambitious as it is messy in its exploration of grand thematics; ethics, science, religion. Examining the interplay between the three philosophical minefields, Agora offers a higher quality of questioning than many of its peers in recent years (Alexander, Troy, 2004) and yet never really comes to any fantastic conclusions either. At best it argues that the philosophy of science is a far worthier pursuit than the philosophy of any “modern” religion and shows how in blindly favouring the latter humans have made for themselves a world full of inequality based on a strangely unshakable blind faith rather than a clear and sound ethical reasoning.
Our protagonist is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale) and a woman who has no interest at all in taking up romantic relations with any potential suitor. Instead, Hypatia is interested only in the natural philosophy of the universe and teaching its endless wonders to the prefects of Alexandria. Refusing the advances of one most forward student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and later her own slave boy Davus (Max Minghella) as he turns against her in a violent uprising against Roman paganism, Hypatia quietly toils away in her quest to answer the true mathematical workings of the solar system.
Heavy on the cyclical motif and with religious uprising operating much like a solar or lunar eclipse, Agora explores Hypatia’s (for the time) radical ideas and arguments with pleasing reflection upon contextual political events. The positing of religious groups against one another weaves in a little contemporary conflict in its characterisation of the “bad” Christians who just so happen to look as though they are of Arabic descent. Further to this, and just in case you weren’t sure who to side with, the groups are conveniently draped in colour-coded robes; Pagans in cream, taupe and beige; Christians in grey and black, Jews in a mixture of colours that sit somewhere in between the two, and often err on the blue side of the colour spectrum. Not quite the black / white binary opposites one might expect from an historical epic, there is certainly a fair shade of grey to show that religion and the philosophy of science aren’t necessarily entirely distinct: both start with sacred literature and (in theory) persist with the pursuit of knowledge. The fundamental difference of course being that where natural philosophy is open to anyone (even Davus is allowed to speculate on its theoretical validity) religion is not (specifically here for women).
Hypatia, whose vast works have been lost to history, was persecuted because of her gender in the greatest display of relational power against an individual who has been quite literally and figuratively stripped of her own. The difference, so perfectly demonstrated right at the beginning of the film, is that Hypatia is only ever concerned with ethical encounters; guided by scientific truth rather than theoretical faith. After Theon whips her slave boy Davus for admitting to being “of the Christian faith”, Hypatia, despite her pagan ways, tends to his wounds much like Mary, sister of Lazarus did Jesus in the bible.
The film’s execution of such broad thematic concerns is relatively simplistic and though it feels somewhat clumsily edited at times (there is a terribly distracting intermittent zoom in and out of planet Earth that is strangely jarring amidst an otherwise seamless visual narrative), the performances, attention to detail and mise-en-scene are all exemplary. Perhaps it is the disjointed focus that affords the film with so undefinable an atmosphere and subsequently lets down what would otherwise be a very engaging work. These points notwithstanding, Agora is an enjoyable enough example of historical mythology and its failing to answer so many of the questions it raises is actually a strength rather than a weakness.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.