While a movie like Agora about the religious persecution of a 5th century female free-thinking mathematician and astronomer may seem like really ancient history, think again. It took five hundred years for the Catholic Church (just last weekend) to finally forgive Nicolaus Copernicus for daring to assert that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, and to rebury him with honors after removing the astronomer’s remains from his long unmarked grave.
And while Hypatia, a once revered teacher, philosopher and scientist in the cultural mecca that was Alexandria, declared her heliocentric theory of the universe eleven centuries before Copernicus, her plight was far worse. Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, Hypatia was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history, a kind of purge that was apparently big business back then. Though the fact that Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora, a small provocative gem of an artistic period masterpiece is being released sandwiched in between the likewise swords and sandals Clash Of The Titans and Prince Of Persia boisterous blockbusters, does not bode well for her fate in this regard either.
Rachel Weisz is Hypatia, born into a time when the arts and sciences flourished even though slavery was still common, and to be a woman in a high position of intellectual authority was not all that far-fetched, at least not yet. But Christianity was on the rise, and its proponents intent on assuming political as well as religious prominence, so that paganism became a buzz word for free thought, and any probing scholarly pursuits or scientific consciousness not conforming to religious notions of creationism.
And while the strictly celibate Hypatia’s consuming obsession is to prove mathematically beyond a doubt, and in opposition to church doctrine, that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, the youth Davus (Max Minghella) one of her many ardent disciples and her personal slave, is fixated on seducing and conquering his indifferent superior. (Even if his knack for playing two flutes at once, fails to impress.)
When the growing numbers of restless Christian masses riot and take over Alexandria, burning the historic libraries, Davus thinks twice about a life of servitude and loyalty to his idolized and unrequited object of desire, therefore leaving Hypatia to her fate, and opting for the new declaration of freedom from bondage instead.
Agora (meaning open air gathering space) is a hypnotically crafted, boldly envisioned excursion into the eerily familiar distant past. Though the reticent drama tends to lag behind the atmospheric period resonance, teeming with lots of religious wilding, throng cheering, era exoticizing, government toppling, mob mentality temple smashing, and nonbeliever ambushing.
Which tends to dwarf the plight of Hypatia, no matter how horrific. In comparison to the greater historical intensity of a moment in time caught between the awe inspiring penetrable mysteries of the sky, and the unfathomable tragic violence on earth below. And where the question of which adversary is on God’s side is determined by who in the end is still left standing.