DVD Review: Agora

How can it be that this provocative movie has been all but overlooked this year? Not so long ago a film this epic would have been celebrated by the industry and by audiences as great entertainment that was also important storytelling with something vital to say about the state of our world today. It would be an Oscar front-runner at this point.

I suspect that, ironically, what Agora depicts is so close a parallel to today -- and intentionally so; this is a vigorously metaphoric movie -- that in retrospect, it was almost inevitable that the culture wouldn't want to hear it. For this is the story of the moment, almost the precise moment, when the erudition of the classical world fell into the Dark Ages, when reason and intellectualism were forced aside by superstition and willful ignorance and religious extremism, when books were burned and learning derided and free thought squashed.

The agora was, in the ancient Greek world, the town square, but also, more symbolically, the public sphere. As we delve into this world of fourth-century Alexandria, the upstart Christians are shouting down the mainstream pagans in the agora. From the fracas we go to the nearby class of philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who is quietly thrilling her disciples with her wisdom on the motions of the stars and the actions of gravity. In this forum there are disagreements -- even ones over religion, for at least one of her students is a vocal Christian -- but they are not so important here, where they all have much more in common than small differences.

This was no perfect world, as director Alejandro Amenabar and his co-writer Mateo Gil depict it, though it is an appealingly familiar cosmopolitan city. But this is a civilization in which slavery and dramatic caste divides are considered so normal as to not be noticed ... and Hypatia has her own blinders about the society she lives in. And so Hypatia's unwitting spurning of the slave boy who worships her, Davus (Max Minghella), will impact her personally as everything crumbles around her, as will her rejection of the romantic overtures of one student, pretty Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and as will the impact she has on another student, Christian Synesius (Rupert Evans), through her philosophy.

Through it all, Agora remains a fiercely intimate film. Hypatia remains a freethinker even as this becomes more and more dangerous ... and she is so rare a character on film, a true scientist.

Hypatia and her thinking -- and her elegant, glorious solution to the problem of Ptolemy! -- get crowded out of the agora, out of the public sphere, in a horrifically tragic way. And I can't help but feel that Agora the film never had a chance in our public sphere today. Is there any room for a movie about a freethinking woman scientist when the forces of ignorance and violence are on the ascendance? Now that Agora is available on DVD, I urge everyone who appreciates stirring, stimulating filmmaking to check it out and be terrified by how contemporary it feels.

Agora is available now on DVD from Lionsgate.


MaryAnn Johanson is an atheist freethinker at the agora of FlickFilosopher.com. (email me)