Saturday, December 18, 2010


Agora was written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside).  It premiered at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals in 2009.  

This is not really a "sword and sandals" film but rather an historical drama about the life of the Alexandrian philosopher, Hypatia.  I want to discuss it here mainly for the fantastic production design work by Guy Hendrix Dyas (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Superman Returns).
Dyas and his team did an incredible job of bringing to life the city of Alexandria in 391 CE.  Today, there is very little of ancient Alexandria left.  The modern city is built largely atop the original, even using the same grid system designed by Alexander the Great.  
Through painstaking research about the historical city, Dyas managed to design something that really feels like a living city but that is also extremely beautiful on film.  Alexandria was a port city and one that benefitted from a unique conflux of Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultural and artistic sensibilities.  The city seems to include the best of all three worlds in its design.
One of the highlights is the re-creation of the famous Alexandrian lighthouse: one of the ancient wonders of the world.  It's seen only in passing on screen but the attention to detail is quite wonderful.  The other amazing re-creation is of the ill-fated Alexandrian library which is the setting for a great portion of the film.
Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz who does a great job of bringing to life the famous female philosopher.  I find the film profoundly sad for two reasons.  First, history notes that Hypatia was one of the first women to work and write extensively in mathematics and science.  She had the benefit of her father's tutelage and the amazing resources of the library but was seldom taken seriously because of the rise of Christianity and its disdain for women as anything but subservient to men.  The film romanticizes her murder somewhat.  The historical Hypatia is said to have been flayed alive by a group of Christians after being accused of speaking her mind.
Second, as much as the film focuses on Hypatia, it also chronicles the rise of Christianity in Alexandria and the hate and intolerance it brought with it.  Granted, Christians themselves had been persecuted since the dawn of their religion but did that give them the right to slaughter those of other faiths?  The film is really an indictment of Christianity.  It depicts Christians as short-sighted villains who willfully kill others and destroy the Alexandrian library and its half a million texts. About 1% of those texts have survived to today.  Imagine all that was lost?!  The sequence of the library's destruction is extremely painful to watch.
Agora is a perfect name for this film.  The agora was a "place of assembly" in ancient Greek cities; sort of a town square.  Ancient Alexandria was like an agora for the Mediterranean.  It was a meeting place for all cultures and peoples until the 4th century CE when intolerance and hate almost destroyed it.  Countless treasures of human thought were lost.  Who knows how Western civilization may have evolved had the Alexandrian library remained intact and continued its mission of collecting the world's knowledge and training new scholars?  

As I mentioned above, Agora is really not a sword and sandals film but I recommend it highly to fans of the genre and everyone else.


  1. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, but a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context. I'm glad you pointed out that it's a fictionalized version of Hypatia's life. Many folks forget that is the artist's way of making a point and believe it's all true. For more about the historical Hypatia, I recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation! I look forward to exploring your blog!