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Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora

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Rachel Weisz in Alejandro Amenábar's "Agora"
Image credit: Focus Features, Newmarket Films & Telecinco Cinema

It’s been almost a year since I wrote about The Legend of 1900 and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It’s been that long since I last felt so moved, so fascinated and so stimulated by a film. Two nights ago, Speedy and I saw Agora, a film by Alejandro Amenábar who in 2001 directed The Others, another all time favorite of mine. As far as I know, Agora was never shown in local cinemas.

Strange, it may seem, since foreign movies that get banned in the country are often those that contain too much violence or sex, or both, and Agora is overflowing with neither. But when I say that Agora does not put Christianity in a good light, you’d understand why there would have been little interest in distributing it locally as any attempt would have probably met with stiff resistance. Remember how some quarters sought the ban of The Da Vinci Code? Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was made in 1988 and, to this day, it is still banned in the Philippines.

Agora is the story of Hypatia (died in AD 415), a pagan philosopher, teacher and influential figure in Alexandria. It is also the story of the changing political climate of Alexandria at a time when Christianity was on the rise, pagans were persecuted and Christian leaders sought to drive the Jews out of Alexandria. 

First, some background history. Alexandria was founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great and was intended to be the Hellenistic center in Egypt as, in fact, it did become. Historically, there were three ethnic groups — Greeks, Egyptians and Jews. Later, Alexandria would become part of the Roman Empire.

By the 4th century during the time of Hypatia, Theodosius I was the Roman Emperor who ruled Alexandria through a prefect (governor). The patriarch was the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the largest Christian church in Alexandria.

When the film begins, Hypatia is teaching a group of young men from wealthy families — a mixture of Jews, pagans and Christians. Out at the agora (plaza, marketplace), a series of confrontations between the Christians and the Jews leads to a violent climax and the rise to power of the Christians. Theodosius I orders the destruction of all “pagan” temples, the Patriarch Theophilus complies and among those destroyed is the ancient library of Alexandria.

Years later, two of Hypatia’s students have become powerful — a Christianized Orestes is prefect and Synesius is the Bishop of Cyrene. Cyril is Patriarch. And this is where the political undertones are truly unleashed. Orestes realizes that Cyril is not really after a live-and-let-live milieu with the pagans and the Jews but, rather, he aimed to be both the head of his church and the highest political authority of Alexandria.

Because Orestes has remained close to Hypatia and Cyril fears her influence over him, he accuses her of witchcraft to oblige Orestes to force Hypatia to convert to Christianity just to prove Cyril wrong. Hypatia refuses which leads to her tragic end.

Agora romanticizes the life of Hypatia especially her relationship with Orestes and the slave, Davus. But, apart from that angle, the story seamlessly integrates with historical events. Davus is a fictional character, probably a composite of people who were confused about their own roles in the political events that were unfolding.

Agora is a film that will make you want to rejoice because it dares to tell a story that many would rather sideline and consider trivial in the bigger order of things. It makes you feel like celebrating because it takes on a no-holds barred attitude in the treatment of people like Cyril who, in history, is considered a saint by many.

But Agora makes you want to cry too in frustration over the greed of men and the power of the unthinking mobs that have made their mark in just about every epoch in human history.

And Agora unleashes the rage in you because it tells you, as you probably already know, that life isn’t always fair and justice does not always rule.

A beautiful film.