The thing that most distinguishes Agora for me is its center character, the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (4th Century A.D.). How often have we seen a film with a central woman character who is not a creature of emotion or sexuality but of ideas. Which is not to say Hypatia (as breathtakingly portrayed by Rachel Weisz) is unfeeling; no, she is warm and affectionate, progressive in her thinking with a gift of empathy, not to mention incredibly offhand about the effect her beauty and persona have on the men around her. But she has deliberately chosen to relinquish romance and the comforts of domestic life women of her time almost inevitably accepted, because she is devoted to constantly developing her mind and acquiring a better understanding of the universe around her.
This is explored primarily in Hypatia's quest to decipher the riddle of the planetary system. How accurate the events of Agora are in this regard is perhaps a matter of conjecture but Hypatia was known to be an accomplished student of astronomy and, while simplified for the purpose of drama, there is a strong element of verisimilitude in the depiction of this search. It also defines what sets her apart from the other characters of the film. While her epiphany will reveal the puniness of Earth in the context of the Universe (and by implication, human civilization), the immediate world around her is dividing itself into factions – Greco-Roman pagans, Christians, Jews – each of which believes in its all-encompassing superiority and divine right to reign over or exterminate the other.
As played out here, there are no absolute heroes on any side. The pagans, including Hypatia's father Theon (Michael Lonsdale), believe themselves dominant and spark conflict by launching an open attack on Christians in their land, only to find themselves foolishly outnumbered and besieged. The Christian retaliation leads to the destruction of the library of Alexandria, then one of the great centers of learning. Most surviving pagans convert to Christianity, either for basic survival or for ascension to power. Then on, the Christians led by bishop Cyril (Sami Samir) and his enforcers aka Parabalani, become increasingly militant in enforcing rules that would not seem out of place in contemporary hardcore Islamic countries.
There are two other major players in the cast – Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a pagan nobleman who once proposed to and was given a bloody rejoinder by Hypatia, has embraced Christianity and is now Prefect of the city. While he knows he cannot expect romance, his friendship with Hypatia and respect for her endures, eventually landing him into direct conflict with Cyril's hardcore fundamentalism. Davus (Max Minghella, who played the Indian guy in The Social Network), a former slave in Hypatia's house and secretly pining for her, is then swayed by Christanity and unabashedly channels his frustrations into life as a Parabalani. He is shown to have his doubts with the deeds of fellow-Christians (notably their lack of forgiveness in dealing with the Jews) but goes along with the tide, only realizing too late what it means for the object of his yearning.
Agora is a big budget film with several scenes of huge scale (using computer imagery, many times to zoom perspective as far back as outer space), but expectedly, none of the major Hollywood studios have seen fit to produce an expensive film which criticizes the excesses of militant Christianity or features a woman intellectual). Depictions of the hazards of militant religion and politics are not uncommon in films and while Agora's setting is fresh, it is not exceptional in that aspect. It is mainly the unique nature of its protagonist gives a special aura to the film. According to Amenabar, for whom it is undoubtedly a labor of love, the project started out as a study of Hypatia and other early astronomers (which I would still love to happen, perhaps as a TV mini-series), but in the final film she is a metaphor for rational thought in an age when such ideas were regarded as blasphemous and fit to be destroyed. It is more than 1600 years since, and we are, sad to say, not entirely out of those times.
I was lucky in that my first viewing of this film was on a blu-ray (a terrific gift from my internet friend Aadil Moosa, whose interest and knowledge of Indian music – especially film music – has been hugely enlightening to me). This region B release is from South Africa (although the film is in English and features well-known actors of those industries, it does not seem to have been released in the US / UK) and features a consistently terrific transfer of the film, the only downside being that high definition exposes the limitations of the computer imagery depicting the scenes of large scale massacre / pillaging. The audio has immense range and clarity, although the scene of the destruction of the Alexandrian library had me rushing to cut the volume, for fear of bringing down the neighbors. There are some extras including a commentary and some featurettes, which I have not yet gone through, but am sure will be interesting in the case of such a thought-provoking film. Highly recommended unless you like your entertainment to exclusively be of Dadumbb variety.