Agora is a new Spanish film, now in limited release in New York City and the Los Angeles area. At first glance, it might be mistaken for the sort of toga-and-sandals B-picture that was popular decades ago. But it’s much more than that. This is one ambitious and cerebral flick!
The setting of Agora is Fourth-Century Egypt under the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Hypatia, a real-life philosopher, against a background of clashes among Romans, Christians, and Jews.
Though the film is based on actual events, some occurrences,
and details of Hypatia’s life, differ from historical accounts. But this all
happened a while ago, and chronicles of the period are fragmented, incomplete,
and contradictory. So a bit of dramatic license is forgivable.
The major theme of this engrossing epic is the conflict between reason and science on the one hand, and religion and superstition on the other. You won’t find that in most Hollywood blockbusters at the multiplex!
A secondary theme concerns knowledge, and the importance of its recording, preservation, and transmission. Hence one of the primary locales: the great library at Alexandria.
The plot is strong and holds your attention almost consistently. Admirers of the work of Ayn Rand will especially appreciate the heroism and courage displayed by several key characters.
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a brilliant scholar and teacher who is in charge of the library, engages in lively intellectual debates with her students and colleagues in an attempt to decipher the mysteries of planetary motion. This portrayal of an independent and ferociously intelligent woman in an age of rabid misogyny and religious fanaticism struck me as possibly anachronistic. But then, I wasn’t there. Feminist elements are certainly evident in Weisz’s fine performance. More than a millennium afterward, some of Hypatia’s insights and conclusions were confirmed by Kepler and Newton.
But Hypatia’s secular, rational investigations of reality don’t sit well with the priests and other religionists who favor divine revelation. She faces denunciation and persecution, and only a few loyal supporters rally to her side.
The film is nothing if not evenhanded: The early Christians are portrayed both as innocent victims of Roman brutality — and as yahoos who storm the library and savagely destroy books containing centuries of knowledge and wisdom. (The books, in the form of parchment scrolls, are neatly stored on row after row of shelves in a manner that would please an organizer from The Container Store.) In the chaos that ensues, Hypatia and friends struggle frantically to save what they can.
Lest this review include the dreaded “spoilers,” I will say no more about the story.
Those who dislike subtitled foreign films will be grateful that all the dialogue is in English — and modern, colloquial, English-accented English at that. I suspect that this was a commercial decision. The film’s appeal would have been limited had it been in subtitled Spanish, much less in Latin and Aramaic. Only Mel Gibson was able to pull off that sort of stunt.
The script is intelligent and literate, and the production values, performances, direction, and cinematography are all top-notch. My only reservation is that the screenplay might have been streamlined and trimmed somewhat. Certain scenes struck me as slow, maudlin, or confusing. But overall, this is a remarkable film that’s well worth seeing.
Here in Manhattan, Agora recently opened at the Sunshine on the Lower East Side and the Paris, next to the Plaza Hotel. (The Paris, a venerable single-screen cinema, is one of New York’s little treasures.) But it just closed at the latter house, following a limited two-week run. It’s also playing now on a few screens in Southern California. I have no information about the producers’ plans for a national rollout, but they surely need to recoup all the money that’s evident on the screen. Check the usual Internet sources and your local listings. Trailers and background material are at the official site.
A footnote: When I saw the announcement for the film, I thought immediately of Agora, the publisher and direct marketer that was one of my earliest clients. Today, 35 years later, I’m still working with the company.
The word agora is Greek for “gathering place” or “marketplace,” and my initial reaction was that a film with that title could be about almost anything. Discovering that it contains themes to warm the hearts of Objectivists — and others who share its admirable values — came as a welcome surprise.
Indeed, it’s rare to find a film that deals seriously with complex and challenging philosophical ideas. And few ideas are more important than freedom, free inquiry, the passion for truth, and the historical clash between rationality and mysticism — a conflict that still rages today. It might be difficult to find in theaters in your area, but even if you have to wait for the DVD, don’t miss Agora.
UPDATE: The movie is now available on DVD.
Don Hauptman is a New York City-based advertising copywriter and humorist, and a longtime Objectivist. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows creative types how to diversify into public speaking, consulting, training, and other profitable activities.