As Tom Stoppard writes in Arcadia, “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”
In the year 391 A.D., the great library of Alexandria was destroyed for the third time, and countless works of literature, philosophy, and mathematics were lost forever. Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora transforms that heartbreaking moment from history into drama, with plenty of the same attitude as Stoppard. (The world’s great discoveries will be made and remade, come what may.) Wisely, the film doesn’t put the library and its unparalleled storehouse of ancient knowledge at the forefront of its concerns. Instead the focus remains the human characters, who are convincingly written and portrayed. In that sense, we don’t mourn our lack of a corkscrew, but theirs.
Amenabar and co-writer Mateo Gil position the film at a pivot point. The pagans are on the way out, the Christians are transforming from persecuted to persecutors, and the advance of knowledge comes to a halt. It would have been so easy for this film to fall into stereotypes, but it was screened at the Vatican and no one objected. It somehow juggles not only four different belief systems (Christianity, paganism, Judaism, and secularism), but also the differences among followers of each, and most importantly, the contradictions within individuals.
The central figure is the real-life Hyaptia, a beautiful and brilliant mathematician, played with grace by Rachel Weisz. She is the director of the library at Alexandria. All of her students are in love with her, specifically the pagan Orestes (the wonderful Oscar Isaac) and the Christian Synesius (Rupert Evans). The slave Davus (Max Minghella) also watches her lectures, and he is smarter than any of her noble disciples, and more vehemently in love with her. When the increasingly outspoken Christians in the city incite the pagans to take up swords, the Christians fight back (“Who knew there were so many Christians?” one character asks), and drive the pagans into their library. The only group of disciples that makes it out entirely unscathed is Hypatia’s. She orders them not to fight.
The film then jumps ahead many years, when it all comes to a head again. By this time, all three of her admirers are Christian, but in distinctly different ways. Amenabar and Gil make it easy to predict the splintering, forking path Christianity has ahead of it. At one point, a character, threatened with stoning, cries “I’m Christian, just like you!” He’s clearly not, and in that brutally violent moment it seems unlikely that these people could ever be the same kind of Christian.
Hypatia, meanwhile, has become obsessed with her unproven theory that the earth orbits the sun in an ellipse. Like Galileo, she becomes consumed by her hypothesis and oblivious to the turmoil around her, until it confronts her face-to-face.
Amenabar’s previous works include The Others and The Sea Inside, psychological dramas contained in one or two locations. Despite being a sword-and-sandal picture, Agora feels remarkably similar to his smaller-scale dramas. Some might accuse it of being long and unexciting, despite its promise of action. Indeed, even in the battle scenes that the film delivers, Amenabar pulls the camera up into the sky so that we look down on the bloodshed as birds look at ants.
This is a film of great sensitivity and insight, with a subject matter out of place in the culture of today. Many people won’t like it. It’s not what they want. After all, who cares about what happened so long ago? In some ways, Agora is obsessed with its own seeming lack of relevance, with how removed we are from these events, how long ago all this took place. So it zooms out into the sky, to where the earth looks again like ours, and admits that its own preoccupations are but a mere hypothesis.