Goodness knows that a historical movie is right up my alley and Agora fits that bill. Agora is the fictionalized story of Hypatia, the philosopher living in Alexandria, Egypt at the end of the 4th century AD. Historical movies can be so much a hit or miss affair, it either works or it doesn’t, adapting a story for a two hour screenplay requires a balance between drama and emotion that reality does not always provide. Inject too much fiction and the story loses the very anchors that make it historical.  The Eagle is an example of this, it starts out as a historical, but ends up being just another adventure/action movie that just happens to be in Roman times: its a good movie, just not very historical. Agora largely avoids this pitfall by using the subtext of the dubious morals of the “Christians” under Bishop Cyril who take over the leadership of the city. From the Wiki:

Agora is a 2009 Spanish historical drama film directed by Alejandro Amenábar and written by Amenábar and Mateo Gil. The biopic starsRachel Weisz as Hypatia, a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in 4th century Roman Egypt who investigates the flaws of the geocentric Ptolemaic system and the heliocentric model that challenges it. Surrounded by religious turmoil and social unrest, Hypatia struggles to save the knowledge of classical antiquity from destruction. Max Minghella co-stars as Davus, Hypatia’s slave, and Oscar Isaacas Hypatia’s student Orestesprefect of Alexandria.

The story uses historical fiction to promote a “conflict thesis” interpretation of the relationship between religion and science amidst thedecline of Greco-Roman polytheism and the Christianization of the Roman empire. The title of the film takes its name from the agora, a gathering place in ancient Greece, similar to the Roman forum.

There is very heavy fictionalization in Davus and his relationship with Hypatia and her investigation of the heliocentric view of the solar system. The later is used as a story device in that finally unlocking the secret of elliptical orbits allows Hypatia to accept her fate at the hands of the parabalani thugs. Davus is a purely fictional character who is there to serve as a viewpoint character.

Agora is remineiscent of the old “sword and sandal” biblical movie like Ben-Hur. This seems to be intentional on the part of the director, as he studied these movies before starting the project. The care in creating the sets is obvious and lush visuals without obvious CG are perfect.

People my age will remember Carl Sagan waxing poetic as he told the story of Hypatia in the Cosmos TV series and indeed that is where the inspiration for this project comes from.

Rachael Wiesz and the others all turn in fine performances.

I love this movie, for its attack on reactionary fundamentalism and the setting. Highly recommended.