|Sammy Samir||Pope Cyril of Alexandria|
|Directed by||Alejandro Amenabar|
There is a hero in Alejandro Amenábar's Agora, and there is a villain. The hero is knowledge. The villain is religion.
Fleshing out these abstract concepts are men and women – or more accurately, many men and one woman. The best of them is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), the legendary philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician of ancient Alexandria. The worst are Pope Cyril of Alexandria (Sammy Samir), and the Christian rabble-rouser Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), both of whom wound up as saints. In between are scholars, slaves, politicians, and religious leaders of varying stripes and convictions.
Hypatia was a remarkable woman. She was the daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale), a noted scholar and mathematician who was the last head of the Museum of Alexandria. By all accounts, she outstripped her father intellectually, and moved among men as a respected teacher and thinker in a time and a culture in which women did not generally lay much claim to gender equality.
The centerpiece of the movie is the destruction of the famous Royal Library of Alexandria, the repository of the knowledge and culture of the ancient world. In Amenábar's version, drawing on an account set down about fifty years after the event, this was the work of rampaging Christian zealots in AD 391. Historical sources offer a few other theories. According to Plutarch, the library caught fire from drifting sparks when Julius Caesar set fire to his ships in the harbor in AD 48. In fact, there were a few libraries in Alexandria, and all those books and records probably didn't go up in a single puff of smoke.
But historical accuracy isn't the point here. This is a movie about the conflict between analytical science and blind faith. Christian fundamentalism gets the worst of it in this telling, but the pagans and the Jews take a few hits too, and the parallels to modern Islamic fundamentalism, as well as the excesses of other contemporary religions, are hard to miss.
Amenábar wrote the part of Hypatia for Rachel Weisz, and she does a convincing job in portraying this woman who was reputedly as beautiful as she was brilliant. Weisz has to put up with some awkward moments, such as the rendering of a historic anecdote n which Hypatia discourages Oreste (Oscar Isaac), a student smitten with her beauty, by showing him her bloody menstrual cloths. He later goes on to become the Roman governor of the city, and they share a good laugh over the memory. This is also one of those movies in which a brilliant epiphany of an idea strikes the protagonist, here the revelation that planetary bodies move in elliptical orbits, and these moments are hard to reproduce on film without a touch of silliness. In any case whether Hypatia ever arrived at this theory is pure conjecture; very little record remains of her actual work.
The dramatizing of an allegorical conflict between abstract principles can be an artistic minefield, especially when it involves swords and sandals, and Amenábar by no mans escapes scot-free. There are times when he succumbs to the heavy-handed, as in a scene where he underlines the mindlessness of mob violence by showing us a close-up of swarming ants on an anthill. But this is also a drama packed with an unusually strong arsenal of ideas. The stakes are enormous. Early in the movie the pagans appear to be in control, but when they overreact to a provocation by the Christian rabble and resort to violence, they get it back in spades. "So many Christians," murmurs the stunned pagan patriarch. "We shall have to negotiate."
Negotiation is pretty quickly out the window as the growing Christian movement begins flexing its muscles. Blood lust and unchecked power are the order of the day. In the midst of some of the fiercest bloodletting, the former slave turned Christian convert Davus (Max Minghella) wonders "Do you ever think we could be mistaken?" The zealot Ammonius responds with a savage sneer.
In the end, things don't work out well for Hypatia, for the library, for scientific knowledge, or for tolerance. Although the movie's history is spotty, its dialogue is sometimes clunky, time frames are telescoped in the service of dramatic narrative, and the emotional deck is pretty heavily stacked against the Christians, its overall impact packs a powerful punch. We do live in a world in which religious intolerance on all sides is in the ascendant, where fundamentalist extremism results in horrors like 9/11, in wars fueled by religious conviction, in absurdities like the shifting of school curricula away from science in favor of religious dogma, in the faith-inspired subjugation of women in many societies.
Ultimately, the thesis of Agora is summed up in an exchange between Hypatia and another former disciple, Synesius (Rupert Evans), now Bishop of Cyrene. Synesius, a philosophically-inclined cleric, suggests to Hypatia that perhaps they can reach some kind of compromise.
Hypatia shakes her head, and fits the conflict between faith and science into a nutshell. "You don't question what you believe," she tells him sadly. "I must."
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be