Lately I have been fascinated by the history of the Ancient Roman Empire. I have been working my way through Dan Carlin’s entries on Ancient Rome and the fall of the Republic. I have been reading I, Claudius. So it would be a natural fit for me to watch a historical film about ancient Egypt while it was still under rule of the Romans.
Agora is about a young woman named Hypatia. If you are familiar with your ancient philosophers or even ancient Alexandrian history, then you will know that Hypatia is famous for being a woman philosopher in an age that seemed highly unlikely that she would be able to be in such an influential role. But nonetheless, she is seen in this film teaching a legion of young men the different philosophical quandaries that filled her life. The most important being whether or not the sun rotated around earth or vice versa. Of course all of this is lost because of what is happens later in the film. Anyway Hypatia is teaching in the intellectual circle of Egypt at a difficult time in Rome’s history. Catholicism is gaining uncommon ground as the religion du jour over paganism. Each side believes that the other one is essentially wrong and a blood battle ensues. Due to Catholicism’s ultimate rejection of education over devotion, when the Catholics inevitably win the battle in the center of Alexandria, they destroy the lauded library of Alexandria. This is significant because this library contained the most extensive research that has happened since the founding of the Empire and even beyond. If this hadn’t happened, we quite possibly had way more material to tell us about the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. After this victory, Catholicism becomes the dominant religion not just in Alexandria, but also in the entire Roman empire. Influential Romans are forced to convert in order to maintain their positions and power. But Hypatia, being a true philosopher, rejects this pressure and relies on her inquiries in order to give meaning to her life. This gets her into trouble because the Catholics see her as a witch with influence over one of her former pupils who is now “mayor” of Alexandria.
Although several men lust after Hypatia, she does not believe that love will save her. This plot point makes me happy. Although it seemed at the beginning that the director was going to show a romantic tryst with her Roman “mayor” pupil but it never happens. Instead the mayor shows undying loyalty to he until he fears for his life. Hypatia shows her lust for knowledge instead of love. She works on her theories up until the very bitter end. The director shoots these scenes of her working out the rotation of the Earth with a sheen that would have complimented a love scene.
Although I found the character fascinating and the plot intriguing, this movie still suffered from historical deluge that so many other movies suffer from as well. For instance in the sequence that puts the rest of the actions of the film in action, the storming of the Library of Alexandria, there is way too much hemming and hawing. There are long scenes where nothing is being done, just waiting. Then when the damage is eventually done and the Catholics storm it, they toss-up scrolls to burn in a pile. The scene fades out with a CGI rendering of scrolls unfurling. There was way too much CGI in this film. I know that it must be hard to depict Alexandria without it, but it was unnecessarily present in several sequences. I want to give directors some advice. CGI blood doesn’t look real. It won’t ever look real unless the whole film is CGI. Just use corn syrup and red dye. Things like this really do take the watcher of the film out of the action. It is not a good thing.
Overall I would recommend this movie if you want an entertaining distillation on why Hypatia is worth studying. I think Rachel Weisz does a great job portraying her. It is just unfortunate that she is surrounded by unneeded CGI.