“Agora” is a depressing, yet powerful film, as it is set during the fall of a great civilization rather than its rise or at its height. “Agora” is about the great female natural philosopher Hypatia, played with quiet passion by Rachel Weisz.
Alexandria, the brilliant city of learning and commerce, was not a nice place to live in the late 4th and early 5th Centuries, especially for someone who was a lover of wisdom, an accomplished scientist, a pagan, and a woman all at once. The great classical civilization built by Greece and Rome was in the process of collapsing, invaded from without, ripping itself apart through religious and social strife from within.
Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia is someone who is horrified by the constant outbursts of mob violence in Alexandria, as various religious groups vied for power, responding to every insult with violence. Hypatia would desperately like to be left alone with study, teach, and observe the heavens. But it is difficult for Hypatia to look up at the stars and those bodies she called “the wanderers” (i.e. planets) when blood is flowing all around her.
How heartbreaking to have to witness the sack of the Great Library, the repository of knowledge in the ancient world for centuries. In Hypatia’s era, those who believed in faith had no patience for those who believed in reason, experimentation, and observation. Knowledge to those early Christians was revealed, not derived. And so priceless works went up in flames.
Think of Alexandria of Hypatia’s era and think of modern Iran under the Mullahs or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Most of the early Christians do not come out well in “Agora”, not Cyril, the fanatical Patriarch of Alexandria, not the scheming Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais, ironically one of Hypatia’s students. Even the tolerant Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, another student of Hypatia, is seen as weak and feckless, to afraid to stop the violence swirling around him.
Another who both loves and hates Hypatia and all she represents is her former slave Davos, torn between the old, pagan world of philosophy and science, and the new, being born in agony world of faith and religion. Davos can run rampant, destroying pagan statues and burning books at one moment, then weep in Hypatia’s arms the next.
In the movie, Hypatia is seen struggling to reconcile what has been understood about the universe since Ptolemy, who constructed an Earth centered universe with epicycles to explain the movement of the planets, and her own observations. We see her stabbing in the dark, in agony with the effort to understand. That she hit upon a sun centered universe and the idea of orbits at ellipses, the latter not realized until Kepler twelve centuries later, is a conjecture of the movie, but reasonable and powerful one from what we know of Hypatia.
Hypatia was born in the wrong time to be what she was, an era in which all she held dear was not valued and even hated. Her ending is depicted as considerably less brutal than what it really was; Davos at the last is shown giving her some measure of mercy before her assassins close in. And you could have wished that someone (we know who) could have entered that chapel where Hypatia was being butchered, looked upon those who claimed to worship him with an expression of ultimate sorrow, and say, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”
One wonders if Cyril, now called a Saint in the Catholic Church, and his raving animals would have listened as had the 1st Century Jews in pursuit of the woman taken in adultery. But Hypatia was a woman taken in loving and pursuing wisdom and knowledge and it was her tragedy that was considered a greater sin than any kind of carnality.
Sources: Agora, IMDB
Hypatia of Alexandria, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, January 8th, 2006