RISING & FALLING

Though it nearly swept the 2010 Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent to our Academy Awards), Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora failed to get much of an audience (or distribution, for that matter) here. It’s particularly perplexing and frustrating, because the writer/director’s previous work, 2004’s The Sea Inside (with Javier Bardem), won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. You’d think that Agora (an even more ambitious film in scope and theme and, like The Sea Inside, based on real events) would’ve attracted more attention.

Since the film is a technical masterpiece in just about every category, it seems improbable that American distributors backed away from promoting it because of the subject’s innate controversy. Either that, or they assumed most American viewers didn’t care about a sword-and-sandal epic without swords, sex, and an abundance of violence, like Troy and Gladiator.

Instead, Agora is concerned with the conflict between philosophy (or science) and religion in the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt at the cusp of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era. At that time, and for centuries earlier, Alexandria was one of the central intellectual centers of the Mediterranean world, famed (among other things) for its magnificent library and lighthouse. It was also a hot bed of religious controversy stemming from violent conflicts among the pagans, Jews and Christians. Less than 100 years from its demise, the Roman Empire had established Christianity as its official religion in 380 A.D., the other faiths becoming barely tolerated minorities. Caught up in the whirlwind of fanaticism and intolerance on various fronts was the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was brutally murdered by a Christian mob in 415 A.D.

Agora is her story, as imagined by Amenábar. And like most, if not all, historically based films, it necessarily involves fictionalizing specific elements to get at universal truths. History itself is often quite fluid and flexible, so why can’t a film be, too? The differing details of Hypatia’s death, for instance, as recounted by the two earliest ancient sources, reflect the obvious biases of the individual authors.

With one exception, all the major characters have their historical antecedents. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) was considerably older at the actual time of her death, but that’s inconsequential. Whether Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the future Roman prefect, was actually a former pupil also in love with her is probably fanciful, but he was undoubtedly one of her major supporters. Synesius (Rupert Evans), later Bishop of Cyrene, was an early student; Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), a rabid incendiary, was executed for an attack on Orestes; Cyril (Sami Samir), Bishop of Alexandria, was a fierce advocate of the emerging Christian power base; and the Parabalani were militant zealots, not unlike the Black Shirts or the Taliban.

Davus (Max Minghella), the film’s one totally fictional creation, nonetheless has an important narrative function, which lets us observe Hypatia from a variety of changing perspectives. Her student as well as her slave, the young man is obviously in love with her. At the same time, he’s drawn to the freedom and beliefs of the Christians. Caught up in the violence and frenzy of the day, he questions the ultimate truth of orthodoxy in whatever guise it wears at the time.

Visually spectacular, Agora features one of the most impressive recreations of the classical era I have ever seen on film. The prologue opens against a view of Earth from space before cutting to Hypatia lecturing to her students about the real function of the stars and other heavenly bodies in the cosmos. As the film progresses, Amenábar frequently draws back from the specific actions in the agora (or meeting place) of Alexandria, the camera pulling away and literally dwarfing human beings and human history from the perspective of global space, Hypatia’s real concerns. One particularly effective scene follows the Parabalani as they swarm through the streets in search of prey, their numbers and identities dwindling to look like a frenzy of swarming ants.

Upon its initial release, Agora encountered considerable criticism in some quarters as an anti-Christian diatribe, but Amenábar is not so much concerned with specific religious beliefs as he is with intolerance or fanaticism in any form or creed. In the film, the pagans first attack the Christians who respond in kind before then attacking the Jews, who also respond in kind. In the end, it’s all a matter of numbers and power, and at that particular time and place, it was the Christians who had the upper hand on both counts.

In another 200 years, a new player would enter the arena in the name of Islam. The names would change, but the killing and violence would stay the same -— as zealots of all faiths continue today.

Near the end of Agora, Synesius, a devout Christian bishop, and Orestes, a more pragmatic Christian prefect, try to persuade Hypatia that her only hope lies in aligning herself with the dogmatic, authoritarian Cyril. “You are as Christian as we are,” Synesius implores her.

“You don’t question what you believe, Synesius,” she replies. “You cannot. I must.” And she pays the price.

Though Agora springs from a particular historical episode more than 1,500 years ago, the movie speaks eloquently and profoundly to our age as well.

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