One day in New York in August of 2010 I walked into one of the smallest independent movie theatres in the West Village to see a film I had happened to read about in the New York Times. It sounded promising – a film about the philosopher Hypatia, a woman committed to the truth and beauty represented by pure science, living in the 4th Century in Roman Egypt, teaching at the famed library of Alexandria. The film was a Spanish production directed by the immensely talented and visionary director Alejandro Amenábar, and starring the stunning Rachel Weisz.
I walked out of the theatre determined to tell everybody about Agora, shocked that I hadn't heard about it sooner and wondering how I could get more people to see it. Available now, finally, on DVD, the film is as powerful, visually and in its philosophical content as I remembered it.
Agora is effective on so many levels that it is hard to describe on paper and with words – the hallmark of a truly successful piece of cinema. It is set, as I mentioned earlier, with the backdrop of the Library of Alexandria, the real sets having been actually built on Malta, complete with the Lighthouse of Alexandria, among other stunning landmarks, and complemented by the blueness of what would have been the then pristine Mediterranean sea.
As Hypatia teaches her students, all young men, the mysteries of the universe, we learn that they are puzzling over the inelegance and whimsy of the accepted Ptolemaic system that posited that the earth was at the centre of the cosmos.
Hypatia is beloved by her students, her slave Davos (played by the broodingly handsome Max Minghella), and by her father for her brilliant mind, her extraordinary beauty and her ability to translate the purity of scientific principals to human behaviour, at one point intervening in a heated discussion between two of her students, Synesius (Rupert Evans) a Christian, and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) a follower of the pagan gods of the time. She points out that if two things equal a third thing in a mathematical sum, then it means that all three are also equal to each other. "We are all brothers here," she says, "there are more things that unite us then divide us."
And with these words we are thrown into the centre of the film's conflict: the hideous clashes between the Pagans and the Christians that result in the sacking of the Library, the mauling of Hypatia's father Theon, and the rise of the Christian fundamentalist Bishop Cyril who, in the years that follow, affects the course of Alexandria's future, forcing all to convert to his religion via terrorising tactics, including stone throwing, burning, and the use of the frighteningly militant Parabolani, or, 'Soldiers of Christ'.
As Hypatia mediates, her former students, Orestes, who loves her, and who is now the appointed Prefect of Alexandria, and Synesius, now a powerful Bishop, struggle to protect her from Cyril's insinuations that she is a witch, and that as a woman, according to the Bible, she may not be above a man (she may also not wear braids, jewelry, or revealing clothing).
It's impossible to sum up what follows and the austere beauty of Hypatia's decisions which leave the viewer filled with horror at the ugliness of religious strife and a profound sense of wonder at one woman's decision to live by her principals. So watch the film.