Weekend Film Recommendation: Agora

This weekend’s film recommendation, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora, is one of those films that’s so hard to sell to people that I’ve never successfully persuaded a friend to sink two hours into it. This is a terrible shame, because it’s a wonderful film.

In late-4th Century Roman Egypt, recent memories include Constantine’s establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and the Nicene Council’s dogma famously reversing the nature of Jesus. The Council decreed that it was no longer the case, as had been believed for three and a half centuries while Christianity was popular among the poor, that a man had been elevated to a God; rather, with the stability now accompanying Christianity as the religion of the powerful elites throughout the empire, the dogma now saw fit to reverse the transformation so that Jesus was now to be understood as a God who had descended to become a man. Erich Fromm has argued that this was key to Christianity’s transition from a religion of “rebels and revolutionaries” to being the faith of “the ruling class now determined to keep the masses in obedience.”

Amidst the turmoil of this change in dogma, when Christianity was on the eve of transitioning from the religion of the revolutionary to a fixture of the establishment, Alexandria became the battleground for Christians jockeying to occupy seats of power and dethrone the pagans, Jews, and scholars who had ruled the roost. Chief among the scholars was the formidable philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, who lectured from the city’s famous library. Historical records reveal that she contributed a great deal to our understanding of heliocentrism, and we also know that she studiously refused either to marry or to adopt a religion. Quite the time and the place to be alive.

We meet Hypatia as she is lecturing her students, who include the doe-eyed Orestes, played by Oscar Isaac, while her slave Davus, played by Max Minghella, listens intently. The both of them are quite besotted with Hypatia, much the good may it do them. When they aren’t drooling over her and fumbling to keep up with her intellect, they’re entangling themselves in the social and political unrest that surrounds them, including the religious violence that consumes even Hypatia’s docile father.

For her part, Hypatia meets that unrest with a kind of witless and naïve dispassion, entreating—but never, it seems, with any vigor—the people around her to try and find a peaceful resolution to their spiritual disagreements. Her words fall on deaf ears. Perhaps this is because others can’t shake the same sense we get as audience members, that she cares less about the rioting in the streets than ensuring she can just continue her research undisturbed. Between her monomaniacal devotion to scholarship, her condescending treatment of suitors, and her dismissiveness to her slaves, she’s not an entirely sympathetic character.

Soon enough, an opportunist emerges among the Christians. A zealot named Cyril, eager to fan the flames of self-righteous violence, deftly maneuvers the remaining revolutionary impulses that Christianity possesses for his own ends. He catapults himself to power and becomes a force that even Imperial (albeit fractured) Rome struggles to contend against. Orestes, too, has exploited Christianity to position himself in power, but finds himself hamstrung in his efforts to curb Cyril’s ambition. Davus, too, has converted to Christianity, although his faith and his love for Hypatia mirror the same intractable tension that Orestes endures.

Yet to watch Agora as a drama about unrequited love during a time of religious turmoil is to gloss over some of the most important themes to emerge from Amenábar’s impressive film. The search to explain why the sun changes size, or whether Ptolemy is right, or to parse the various shapes contained within a cone, all of those meditations situate the metaphysical urgency that preoccupies the rest of the film. When the camera zooms out from a riot between religious fundamentalist factions to a shot of the entire globe, it accentuates the mindlessness of the quibbles we have on our pale blue dot.

If I haven’t persuaded you to watch it, that’s par for the course. It really is worth your time, though, as a glimpse into the final moments before Western civilization disappeared into the Dark Ages and we learned to rely on the Middle East to produce the Big Ideas. I hope you give it a go.

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