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Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
­­­­Certificate tbc, 127 mins


Hypatia of Alexandria was, by all accounts, a brilliant philosopher and thinker of the post-Constantinian Roman world, a time of extraordinary cultural upheaval in which the powerful status quo of the Empire was giving way to the rising tide of Christianity, the political clout of the Church and, somewhere on the horizon, the Dark Ages. Today, she looks much like a prototype feminist: a woman operating on equal terms with men in a man's world. Played here by Rachel Weiss, she becomes increasingly constrained and ultimately destroyed by the fundamentalist Christian religion of the day.
Coming from a director of terrific previous achievements (Tesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others), Agora offers cinematic feats to be marvelled at. The first is the re-creation of Alexandria and its famous library, which feels like the result of considerable and passionate research.

The second achievement is likely send many Christians reeling: the viewer is plunged into the religious conflict of the time wherein factional mob violence is common - Christians against Sabbath-observing Jews or temple cult worshippers, stoning, mass death by the sword.

Living centuries after the invention of the printing press, when most Christians can read and try to live by the New Testament, it's easy to forget what life must have been like in earlier times. We somehow don't expect the ancient world to be like a Middle Eastern conflict where the term 'Christian' appears to simply denote one arms-bearing side in a violent cultural struggle.

The central focus here is on the philosopher and her thought, imaginatively reconstructed from the few details that survive of Hypatia's actual teachings. We see her grapple compellingly with the problem of the relationship between earth, sun and other planetary bodies.

But religious unrest is  never far away in the background, and eventually brings the narrative to catharsis. The first half involves Hypatia's trusted slave Davus (Max Minghella) - a character invented for the film and unrequitedly in love with her. He comes into contact with the Christians and spiritually moves towards and then amongst them, allowing the filmmakers to explore this Christian mindset alongside Hypatia's philosophical outlook. This is in turn contrasted with the more practical viewpoint of Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who is initially a student of Hypatia (and her would-be but rejected suitor) and subsequently Prefect of Alexandria.

Agora is pitched as the story of a slave embracing Christianity and in love with his famous philosopher mistress, with trailers featuring mobs and collapsing monuments. But it is also that rare film which really tries to get into the mindset of the ancient world by exploring unfamiliar territory. (Just compare it to Gladiator's no real surprises military forays and gladiatorial arenas.) It's a work to be applauded for that attempt.

Jeremy Clarke