“The world just as it is” | Agora (2009)

A woman looks to the skies in search of order. A student is torn between an infatuation with his teacher and his political ambitions. A slave struggles to admit his religious faith. These three interrelated lives form the core of Agora, a 2009 historical drama by Chilean writer/director Alejandro Amenábar.

At the time of its release it was the most expensive Spanish film production of all time, and it forms part of a broader internationalisation of Spanish cinema: films with glossy production values, populist appeal and oftentimes English language dialogue. Over the past two decades there has been a slow-cresting wave of such films including not only Amenábar’s own The Others (2001), but also Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Alatriste (2006) and The Impossible (2012). With its English dialogue, international cast and lavish production values Agora sits very comfortably in the middle of that wave.

Within Spain Agora was a sizeable commercial hit, grossing almost US$30 million dollars during its theatrical run. In English-speaking markets it failed to capture the market’s attention: a theatrical gross of only $619,000 in the USA, and a limited release nearly everywhere else. Its comparatively low profile is a terrible shame, as Agora is a powerful and intelligent epic that speaks powerfully to issues of religious intolerance and the pursuit of science in our own contemporary world.

Alejandro Amenábar is one of the most talented and distinctive voices in Spanish cinema. Rather impressively he has established that reputation on just a handful of films. He made his directorial debut in 1996 with the university-set thriller Thesis. The following year his thriller Open Your Eyes gained widespread international recognition; it was later remade in Hollywood as Vanilla Sky (2001). His first English-language feature, the gothic horror The Others (2001), grossed more than $200 million worldwide. His 2004 biographical drama The Sea Inside, about quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro’s crusade to legalise euthanasia, was awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. In his own country the film was awarded with 14 Goya Awards, still the highest number ever awarded to a single film.

Amenábar is a director capable of shifting effortlessly from one genre to another, whether thrillers, horror films, science fiction or intimate drama. There is an intelligence to each of his works; one which treats his audience with remarkable maturity and respect. In 2009 Telecinco Cinema produced Agora, his fifth feature and far and away my favourite of his works to date.

Amenábar famously developed the idea for making The Sea Inside while staring at the ocean. It was during a subsequent seaside trip that the seeds of Agora formed in his mind. ‘So this time I was at the sea,’ he said, ‘it was a night – a very dark night with no artificial light around, no moon – and I saw the depth. I felt the depth of the outer space for the first time in my life, really, as I was able to see the Milky Way. Someone told me, “This is not a cloud. That is the Milky Way.” I said, “No way.” And then I thought, there must be life around us. I’m sure there must be intelligent life, and some of my friends said, “No.” And then I started reading about astronomy. I got really, really interested on how this worked and what scientists know about it. I read Carl Sagan’s books. I watched his series, Cosmos, and was very impressed the moment he calculates the probability of other life and I decided to make a movie about astronomy.’[1]

Given Amenábar’s description, one might easily assume he was inspired to write and direct a futuristic science fiction film in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Instead he looked back in the other direction: to the past, and the life of the 4th century astronomer and philosopher Hypatia.

Hypatia of Alexandria was born in that city sometime between 350 and 360 CE. Many details of her life have been lost over time. Historians know that she was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, who had edited Euclid’s Elements in addition to writing commentaries on pre-existing philosophical works. It is believed that Hypatia was educated in Athens before returning to Alexandria. At around the year 400 CE, aged somewhere between 40 and 50 years old, Hypatia became head of the city’s Neoplatinist school and taught the theories of Plato and Aristotle to a mixed classroom of Christians, Jews and pagans.

Amenábar did not begin with a film about Hypatia. His first instinct was to develop a film that tracked the entire history of astronomy from ancient civilizations to the present day. His first attempts to develop a story treatment foundered. It was only by focusing on one specific moment in history that he found a strong enough character around which to build his film.

The 4th century Alexandrian setting allowed Amenábar to incorporate several provocative moments in history: the destruction of the Serapeum – the last vestige of the great Library of Alexandria – and the banning of pagan worship by the ascendant Christian religion. It expanded the film’s concept immeasurably: while Hypatia would have her eyes fixed on the heavens, trying to comprehend how the celestial objects orbited one another, the city around her could act as an allegory for the rise of religious intolerance in the present day.

To gain a better understanding of Hypatia and the historical period in which she lived, Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gill enlisted the British historian Justin Pollard, author of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind, to consult with them and offer advice. Pollard was supportive of the fictional story that the writers were developing around scant historical evidence.

One of those pieces of evidence, written by Socrates Scholasticus in about 450 CE, stated: ‘There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.’[2]

‘Because there are so many holes in the story,’ explained Pollard, ‘you have a lot of scope for putting in your own drama. No works of Hypatia survive, and her story is one told in fragments written by various authors in smaller pieces in other books that are now lost, translated into Arabic and which then came back to the West. So you have to take it all with a pinch of salt.’[3]

The absence of Hypatia’s original works allowed Amenábar a major liberty in developing her achievements. During the film the fictional Hypatia successfully theorises the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun; something actually discovered by Johannes Kepler in 1601 CE. In truth such a discovery would have almost certainly been beyond Hypatia’s ability, since Kepler’s own discovery relied on measurements made by fellow astronomer Tycho Brahe using equipment uninvented at the time of Hypatia’s life. Within the fictional context of Agora, however, the discovery is thematically perfect. While Alexandria wilfully collapses into a stark, uncompromising theocracy based upon assumed absolutes, Hypatia discovers a real world of previously unknown complexity.

‘Basically,’ said Weisz – who plays the role of Hypatia in the film, ‘what we know about her is that she was an expert in conic sections – the shapes, the ellipses, the circles. She’d edited Ptolemy’s texts with her Dad, who ran a library. She was a brilliant mathematician. There was a contemporary – or not even a contemporary, a man from centuries before… Aristarchus. He had proposed a heliocentric model. So that was available to be thought about. So I guess the liberty that Amenábar took was to attribute that she figured this out – this heliocentric model. Could she have done it? Yeah. Did she do it? We don’t know. So that’s where it becomes a fantasy.’[4]

One aspect of Hypatia’s life is known from remaining historical evidence: how it ended. She was a close confidante and former tutor of the Alexandrian Prefect Orestes. During a power struggle for the city between Orestes and the Christian Bishop Cyril, Hypatia was taken from her home by Christian zealots and murdered. One account by Scholasticus, which favours Hypatia, claims she was taken into a church and flayed with oyster shells before being mutilated. Another account by John of Nikiû, written more than two centuries after the fact, presented Hypatia as a Satanic witch who had manipulated Orestes against the Christians. She was stripped naked and dragged through the streets until dead. In both cases Hypatia’s death coincided with the final removal of non-Christian faiths from Constantinople. Whether pagan or Jewish, those of non-Christian religions were either converted, expelled, or murdered.

The limited evidence surrounding Hypatia puts Agora into a strange position among historical dramas. Popular cinema has always been relatively loose with historical accuracy, whether removing the bridge from the Battle of Stirling Bridge in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, or having William Wallace bed the Princess of Wales in Braveheart, or – well actually you can pretty much point to Braveheart as the poster child for every historian’s worst nightmare about Hollywood’s gleeful inaccuracies. Agora is in a fairly distinctive position, however, since without any documented facts upon which Amenábar and Gill could respond the entire production is freed up to tell the story they want with the scant flavours of the real city and people to inform it.

The bulk of the film’s core characters are based loosely upon real people. Hypatia and her father Theon are obvious examples, but also her pupils Orestes and Synesius (one becomes a city prefect, the other a priest), and the bishop Cyril. The single-greatest fictional addition to the story is Hypatia’s slave Davus. He is the pivotal character to the entire film. He is secretly a Christian – a religion forbidden in Theon’s house  – and it is through his experiences over a period of years that we witness Christianity spread across the city. Davus is the character caught between the film’s two worlds: he is irresistibly drawn to his Christian brothers and their violent insurrection against the Jews and the pagans, but he is also emotionally devoted and deeply in love with Hypatia. Their separate experiences coil around the film’s narrative before rejoining in the catastrophic climax.

Davus’ presence raises a moral complication in Hypatia’s character. The film positions her as a rational and intelligent woman representing a world of logic, order and science, and more sophisticated and morally justified than the Christians’ violent zealotry. At the same time it punctures that moral superiority by giving her slaves. It is an accurate historical detail for the time, but it manages to shock and offend at the same time. In one scene we see Hypatia rattle off a list of objects. Slaves are one of them. For all of her rational thoughts and theories, Hypatia – indeed all of Alexandria’s elite – does not see slaves as people.

Rather than title the film after its protagonist, Amenábar chose to call it Agora. He explained: ‘We thought about calling it Hypatia but people have problems with pronunciation. It’s probably different in every place and it’s not a beautiful name. That was one of the trickiest things. So, we said let’s call it the place where the old Greeks met and discussed ideas – this changed the world. Agora is the place where we all have to live.’[5]

Amenábar wrote Hypatia with Rachel Weisz in mind. Born in England, Weisz had broken into mainstream cinema starring opposite Keanu Reeves in the 1996 action thriller Chain Reaction. Three years later she played the lead role of Evelyn in Stephen Sommer’s blockbuster hit The Mummy, as well as its 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns. Subsequent roles balanced Weisz’s career between mainstream entertainment and independent and arthouse dramas, including Enemy at the Gates (2001), Runaway Jury (2003), The Constant Gardner (2005), The Fountain (2006) and The Brothers Bloom (2008). Amenábar sent the Agora screenplay to Weisz via her agent, with an offer to play the lead role attached. She immediately accepted.

‘It just grabbed me,’ Weisz later remarked. ‘It had a lot to do with who’s directing it and the fact that it was a true story. It just seemed very challenging. I like things that are challenging and difficult and scary. It’s more fun than doing things that are in your comfort zone.’[6]

‘When I first read the movie,’ said Weisz, ‘and I closed the script, I thought, “This is a movie about today.”  It’s a contemporary film set in the 4th century and what’s interesting is, what hasn’t changed.  I mean, we know what has changed.  We go to the moon, antibiotics, blah, blah, blah, but in terms of fundamentalism, in terms of people saying “I’m going to kill you because you don’t believe in my God,” we don’t seem to have progressed an enormous amount at all.’[7]

Amenábar wrote his fictional Hypatia as an atheist, which better contrasts her rational world view against those of the Christians. In truth, the real Hypatia was almost certainly a pagan. Of the character, Amenábar said: ‘She is obviously looking for something but she doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think the word atheist even existed in that time, but she is fed up with all these codes that get people to kill each other.’[8]

Weisz was keen to see the romantic element of the film played up. Hypatia is the object of two men’s desires during the film – Orestes and Davus – and Weisz suggested advancing that element of the film even further. ‘Alejandro was very, very strong about it,’ Weisz recalled, ‘and he just said “This is a person who is completely devoted and passionate about their work; they’re in love with their work. There have been so many stories told about men who are obsessionally into their work, and no one would ever say, “Well, hold on a minute: why don’t they get married?”’[9]

The role of Davus was played by Max Minghella – son of noted screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient). ‘My father was obsessed with Alejandro,’ said Minghella, ‘I was hugely familiar with Alejandro’s work – both his Spanish work and his English films. I couldn’t really believe I was going to be able to work with him on this level. I would have turned up for anything.’[10]

After making his feature debut in Bee Season in 2005, Minghella had performed in a small number of other films including Art School Confidential (2006) and How to Lose Friends and Influence People (2008).

Orestes was played by Guatemala-born actor Oscar Isaac. His first major role came a year before Agora, playing the CIA field operative Bassam in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies. Subsequent to Agora he has become very much an actor in demand, appearing in Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) as well as Drive (2011), Inside Llewelyn Davis (2013), Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (both 2015) and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).

Fellow student Synesius was played by Rupert Evans. Probably best known to cinema audiences for his role in Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004), Evans was a skilled theatrical actor and member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Another actor Amenábar enthusiastically pursued was English comic performer Sacha Baron Cohen. In this case, however, the actor declined the offer – finding the subject matter too ‘prickly’. ‘I think it was for religious reasons, mainly,’ suggested Weisz.[11]

Agora was shot at Fort Ricasoli in Malta: it was the same location used for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). The shoot commenced in March 2008 and continued until June. Shooting was suspended briefly each day at noon, to allow the nearby churches in Kalkara and Vittoriosa to ring their bells.

In sharp contrast to other 21st century historical features the film utilised physical sets, including a massive outdoor recreation of Alexandria that required more than 1,000 extras to populate. Amenábar said: ‘To me it was important to think we had the privilege of going back to the past for a few days. It’s perfectly honest trying to do that digitally, but for me I wanted to see the actors interacting with space, I wanted to see the sweat of the actors combine with the walls. I wanted them being there. I know it’s going backwards with what’s being done today, but you get a different feeling.’[12]

Amenábar’s approach in this regard works wonders. There is a physicality to Alexandria that is rarely experienced in the more CGI-enhanced historical films coming out of Hollywood in recent decades. It feels authentic and lived-in, and the transformation of its people over the several years tracked by the film is visible and profound.

While using a grounded, very physical world in which its characters live, Agora also maintains one eye carefully on the sky above. It is in part a film about astronomy, and Amenábar reflects this in multiple ways. For scenes where Hypatia studies the night sky, the visual effects team used star chart software to accurately simulate the 4th century heavens, with all of the stars in their correct positions.

More striking is the manner in which Amenábar suddenly cuts from key events in the story to an orbital view of Earth hanging in space. It has an immediate and disorienting effect. Scenes of space are the purview of the science fiction film, and they are momentarily disorienting when they appear here. Such shots achieve two goals. Firstly they diminish the scale of the film’s religious conflict, showing off that while the conflict between Christians and pagans represents the entire world for its participants it is only taking place in a tiny speck on a massive blue and white globe. Secondly the shots aggressively contemporise that conflict. Religious intolerance and faith-inspired violence are not the dominion of the ancient world, but something that continues to happen today.

Amenábar said: ‘For me, this wasn’t just the story of a woman, but the story of a city – and a civilization, and a planet – so I wanted to find a way visually to capture that. When you see things from a distance, you can see how relative things are. The ideas that so inflame people up close, that feel so scary and menacing, they look very different when you see them from a different perspective.’[13]

The film’s representation of early Christianity earned it some controversy upon release. In Spain it was fiercely criticised by the Religious Anti-Defamation Observatory, headed by Antonio Alonso Marcos. In an open letter to Amenábar published days before the film’s release, he asked: ‘Is that what you were looking for? To throw manure on an institution that today helps millions of human beings to live and enjoy life to the fullest?’[14]

Father Robert Barron, writing for the USA’s Catholic Education Resource Center, wrote: ‘In one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film, Amenábar brings his camera up to a very high point of vantage overlooking the Alexandria library while it is being ransacked by the Christian mob. From this perspective, the Christians look for all the world like scurrying cockroaches. In another memorable scene, the director shows a group of Christian thugs carting away the mangled corpses of Jews whom they have just put to death, and he composes the shot in such a way that the piled bodies vividly call to mind the bodies of the dead in photographs of Dachau and Auschwitz.  The not so subtle implication of all of this is that Christians are dangerous types, threats to civilization, and that they should, like pests, be eliminated.’[15]

It is true that the Christian mobs depicted in the film are violent and ultimately murderous. They begin the film as worshippers of a banned religion. Once the Roman Empire declares Christianity to be legal, they soon overrun and banish the Jews. When Christianity then becomes the dominant religion, they violently turn their attention to the pagans.

In one of the film’s most memorable sequences the Christians storm the library in the Serepeum, the last surviving remnant of the Library of Alexandria. They tear down the shelves, throw priceless scrolls into a pile in the middle of the chamber. Davus, having fled from Hypatia’s service to join the Christians, is swept up in the chaos and watches the destruction in stunned disbelief. The camera slowly arcs upwards, flipping the entire scene one hundred and eighty degrees: a world turned upside-down.

If we can put aside the question of historical accuracy, it seems clear that Amenábar presents the Christians in a particular manner in order to provoke his audience. The way that the mob behaves – assaults and attacks leading up to bloody massacres, imposing their harsh laws on others once they have assumed control – resembles with remarkable closeness the behaviour of modern-day terrorist groups such as Islamic State. If presented with radicalised Muslims, a 21st century audience would not bat an eyelid. Presented with radicalised Christians, that same audience is unexpectedly challenged to actually confront what it is that makes people turn to religious violence at all. ‘We are accustomed to seeing lions devouring Christians in films,’ said Amenábar, ‘but not the transformation of Christians from a persecuted group to one that is powerful and armed.’[16]

Rachel Weisz hit the proverbial nail on the head in one interview, saying: ‘I don’t think it’s an anti-Christian movie; I think it’s an anti-fundamentalist movie.’[17]

There is also another angle presented on the Christians, who are prominently seen caring for and feeding the city’s poor in one early scene. They are clearly a persecuted and maligned people, and respond to that persecution with violence of their own. It complicates what could easily become a starkly anti-religious film. This duality is exemplified by a stunning performance by Ashraf Barhom as the monk Ammonius. Barhom’s charismatic and energetic performance simultaneously captures both sides of the Christian identity during this turbulent historical period. He is one of the highlights of the entire film.

‘I think there are some kinds of contradictions in it actually that I love,’ said Amenábar. ‘You could interpret it as an anti-Christian movie, but actually I think sometimes it is a very Christian movie. There are some similarities with Hypatia and how she behaved and Jesus – having disciples, being open-minded, being finally tortured and killed just because of her ideas – so I also tried to explore the nice side of Christianity through piety and compassion.’[18]

Amenábar presents a question of how rational thought can overcome irrational violence, and does not come to a happy conclusion. The film’s climax is extremely harrowing, as Hypatia is captured on the street, dragged to the Serepeum – now converted to a Christian church – stripped naked by her aggressors and murdered. It is unflinching without being exploitative, and deeply upsetting to watch. As if the symbolism of the library transformed into a church was not enough, Amenábar has the last thing Hypatia sees be the circular skylight in the roof of the building. Seen from an angle it forms an ellipse: the exact orbital pattern that she has ultimately died to discover.

Ultimately Agora is many things, and can be viewed in different ways. For some it may be a handsomely assembled and photographed historical epic, to be viewed for its impressive sets and carefully designed costumes. For others it may be a tragic romantic drama about a woman who ultimately loses everything because she refuses to abandon her passion. The film is also a heartfelt love letter to science, particularly mathematics, and of course it is most obviously an impassioned plea for rationality in the age of religious intolerance.

It is the manner in which Alejandro Amenábar balances and interweaves all of these aspects, along with the beautiful way in which each shot has been framed and composed, and the rather beautiful musical score by Dario Marianelli, that makes Agora such an underrated gem. I saw it first out of idle curiosity, and it has become more powerful and affecting with every subsequent viewing. It is a one-of-a-kind film.

[1] Quoted in At the Movies, ABC Television, 10 November 2010.

[2] Charlotte Higgins, “Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora: a gift for classicists”, The Guardian, 19 May 2009.

[3] Larry Rohter, “Science vs. Zealots, 1,500 years ago”, New York Times, 21 May 2010.

[4] S.T. Vanairsdale, “Rachel Weisz on Agora, her job description and the cinema of ideas”, Movieline, 26 May 2010.

[5] Scott Holleran, “Alejandro Amenábar on Agora”, www.scottholleran.com (http://www.scottholleran.com/old/interviews/alejandro-amenabar.htm)

[6] Carla Hay, “Rachel Weisz tackles the art of finding great roles playing extraordinary women”, Examiner, 24 May 2010.

[7] Ron Messer, “Rachel Weisz interview Agora”, Collider, 28 May 2010.

[8] Scott Holleran, “Alejandro Amenábar on Agora”, www.scottholleran.com (http://www.scottholleran.com/old/interviews/alejandro-amenabar.htm)

[9] Quoted at Agora press conference, 2009 Cannes Film Festival, 17 May 2009.

[10] Quoted at Agora press conference, 2009 Cannes Film Festival, 17 May 2009.

[11] Carla Hay, “Rachel Weisz tackles the art of finding great roles playing extraordinary women”, Examiner, 24 May 2010.

[12] Mark Olsen, “Indie focus: In Agora, a faceoff between faith and science”, Los Angeles Times, 30 May 2010.

[13] Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey, “At Cannes: Alejandro Amenábar’s provocative new historical thriller”, Los Angeles Times, 17 May 2009.

[14] Quoted in “Civil groups protest new anti-Christian film”, Catholic News Agency, 7 October 2009.

[15] Fr Robert Barron, “The dangerous silliness of the new movie Agora”, Catholic New World, 5 May 2010.

[16] Larry Rohter, “Science vs. Zealots, 1,500 years ago”, New York Times, 21 May 2010.

[17] S.T. Vanairsdale, “Rachel Weisz on Agora, her job description and the cinema of ideas”, Movieline, 26 May 2010.

[18] Quoted at Agora press conference, 2009 Cannes Film Festival, 17 May 2009.

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