Ágora Film Review: The Story of Hypatia
In Alejandro Amenábar’s Ágora we can appreciate two opposed forces: the mind anesthetised absolute inane thinking of the masses versus the level-headedness of those who realise they don’t know everything. Realisation which leads to an infinite thirst for knowledge and to share that knowledge with others so that they can live a life free of fear.
(If you don’t know the story of Hypatia, and don’t want to know, there are some spoilers in this text, be warned).
Whilst Ágora might seem a biopic or historical film, it is very much historical fiction, used to highlight the connection between religion and science at the time (391AD) during the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Thus, Ágora must not be taken as an accurate account of true events. Although it’s based on a part of Hypatia’s life and set within a historical frame, Ágora holds a few contradictions, inaccuracies and anachronisms. However… bear with me and keep on reading.
Ágora: what the film is about
Alexandria, late 4th century: The film’s story, setting and location use historical fiction to tell us about Hypatia, a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who is fixated with the exploration of the flaws of the geocentric Ptolemaic system and the heliocentric model that challenges it. Her personal slave, Davus, is in love with her, as well as her student Orestes.
The city of Alexandria is immersed in religious havoc and social unrest as Christians gain political power while learning, pagan, institutions, on the other hand, begin to crumble. Hypatia struggles to save part of the classical knowledge from destruction by the Christians, who end up setting fire to the Library of Alexandria (not really. It’s the Serapeum). Years later, Orestes, who hasn’t conquered Hypatia’s heart (no one ever did), is the city’s prefect. His relationship with the Christians is relatively peaceful, but utterly uncomfortable. Their hegemony (Christians’) is disturbed only by the Jews and the nonbelievers whilst Hypatia continues to be concerned about the movement of celestial bodies, knowledge, and “the brotherhood of all”, having no interest in faith nor Christianity.
For your reference: following, there’s a link to the most accurate Hypatia’s biography I have found. Maria Dzielska searches behind the legend to bring us the real story of Hypatia’s life and death, and new insight into her colourful world.
Hypatia’s time: is Ágora historically accurate?
This is one of my favourite films of all time, and perhaps one of the best released in 2009.
If my coaching studies and the book Sophie’s World triggered a deep interest in philosophy amongst other things, this film activated my interest, not only in the life of Hypatia herself, but also in ancient history.
Despite what I wrote in the introduction, there are many places where the film IS historically accurate, from Hypatia’s chastity, her studies and the way she died, to the social and religious turmoil present during her time and the coetaneous existence of many of the characters like Cyril, Orestes, Synesius of Cyrene or Ammonious. The persecution of the jews, the hegemony of the Christians, … most part of the historical setting of the film is also historically accurate. Even there’s evidence of the attack on the prefect of Alexandria which originated due to the challenge of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, to Orestes, regarding the advice he received from Hypatia. A feud which, together with the turmoil already engulfing the city, ultimately provoked her death. But let’s just be clear that not all Christians were hostile towards her as the fanatic zealots who killed Hypatia: some Christians even saw her as a symbol of Virtue.
There are, however, some inaccuracies that may lead to confusion too, like the age of Hypatia at the time of her murder (she was probably around 60) or one of the most memorable scenes (at least for me) where the Christians burn and destroy the Great Library of Alexandria. The historic Library was destroyed long before Hypatia was born, but it is true that the Christians destroyed the Serapeum of Alexandria (considered the daughter of the Library).
Ágora: the film and its depiction of Christians or extremists?
Much has also been said about Ágora deliberately depicting Christianity in a bad light, claiming it is a far from an accurate representation of the facts, or that there are no positive Christian characters in Ágora.
“Religion has nothing to do with love.
Love does not divide.” —Madonna
Both claims couldn’t be furthest from the truth. There are numerous positive Christian characters in the film, starting with Orestes himself. And, as per how the Christians are portrayed in this particular moment in history, THAT is also quite accurate. But this isn’t the point of the film, to bash Christians. It’s funny how some felt offended. No. The point of the film is to condemn any form of fundamentalism or religious extremism and to encourage critical thinking. But, you see, it would appear that some people think that any negative account about Christians can never resemble an accurate picture of the facts and, of course, must be historically false and biased.
However, viewing Ágora ought to be mandatory for all people who are convinced that theirs is the only god or who believe their faith has done nothing but good throughout history. Don’t be offended when the reality of most religions is portrayed in any form. Religion is and has been the cause of many deaths and hatred.
If Amenábar’s intention had been to attack Christians arbitrarily and capriciously, he would have probably chosen to gloat and dwell on the viciousness of Hypatia’s murder who, for the record, was skinned to death with seashells by fundamentalist Christians. The director, however, doesn’t film what would have been a visually unpleasant scene. He chooses to revel in her thinking and her mind rather than her death just to make a knock on effect.
“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”
― Hypatia of Alexandria
To me Ágora is about the importance of open-mindedness, asking questions rather than thinking one has all the answers, the pursuit of knowledge. It’s about the clash of Christians & Pagans in 4th Century Roman Egypt, a bold interpretation of the battle between free thinkers and science versus religious doctrine and fundamentalism.
A quick word about the acting in Ágora
Splendid performances all around and special mention to Rachel Weisz giving one of the best acting of his prestigious career. She plays the lead role with such elegance and conviction that the instant just previous to her death and her refusal to convert to Christianity whilst pronouncing the rather-awkward-when-printed words “I believe in philosophy”, turn out to be two of the most powerful instants in modern cinema, in my opinion.
Regarding the film itself, Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gilwrote an interesting and thought-provoking screenplay with Rachel Weisz in mind to play Hypatia, the lead character.
Forget about the astonishing recreation of Alexandria and overwhelming set designs, the fabulous costumes, the beautiful photography, colourful cinematography and effects, where magnificent Alexandria is viewed from outer space as utterly insignificant, so as to put humanity into perspective —notice the parabalani shot from above, seen as little hectic ants causing havoc—, or even the impeccable performances. What makes this film so great is the way in which it signifies human beings’ paradoxical capabilities of stretching from the summits of reason to the depths of unreason and how challenging the status quo has been dangerous since the dawn of times.
I was so happy — contrary to many others — that there was not a romantic emphasising of the story, that I truly get cross when I read other reviews who criticise just this fact. The film isn’t a romance, it’s a humbling journey through this important part of the life of an exceptional woman who had more questions than answers, who spent her whole life in a quest about our nature and our place in the universe. I’m also cross that, however many discoveries she made, not a single word written by Hypatia has survived, only because she was a woman. Every time I see Ágora I find myself on the verge of tears all the way through most of the film, absorbed by the magnificence and wisdom of its vision. I’ve never seen in a film an ending scene that holds so much authenticity and brutality at once (and without manifestly displaying that brutality).
But don’t believe a word I say. See this fantastic movie called Ágora and decide for yourself. That is what Hypatia would have told you to do.
“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” – Hypatia of Alexandria.