The Library of Alexandria was the first truly universal library in history, attracting the most eminent philosophers, scholars, and visionaries of the entire civilized world. It was the chief wonder of the ancient world, containing an incredible mass of literature, philosophy, history, science, and art, including the golden coffin of the city’s founder, Alexander the Great. The Library was also an agora, an ancient name for public assembly places. These cultural centers were symbolized by the world’s first lighthouse that guarded Alexandria’s harbor.
Light, a metaphor of knowledge and illumination, was made by mankind. We created it. We brought it forth from the darkness of the ages.
The destruction of the Library in 391 A.D. is considered one of the most notorious crimes in history, taking the greatest collection of knowledge ever assembled and putting it to the torch in the name of narrow-minded politics and ignorant religion.
The film Agora is a movie about ideas, a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition. At its center is a woman named Hypatia who was a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher at the Library of Alexandria. Her theory of a heliocentric solar system is as dramatic as the riots that are the opening act of the Dark Ages.
Without knowing it, Hypatia will be the last great scientist for 1,000 years.
The Roman Empire is on it’s last legs, and Christians, after centuries of oppression, have begun to persecute others. The agora has declined from a forum of free speech into a staging area for quackery and public stonings. The Christians shout down the mainstream. It is an era of Taliban-style radicalism, zealotry and violence against pagans and Jews that shakes the foundations of civilization and enlightened thought.
Hypatia has two young men completely under her spell. They are Orestes, a wealthy, self-confident student and Davus, her worshipful slave who eagerly absorbs her theories about the nature of the cosmos. Both make the error of feeling lust for her. Hypatia is beautiful, but devoid of sexual feeling. She feels passion only for scholarship.
She doesn’t define herself through her relationship to men, or God. She is an independent and brilliant rationalist who’s great love is advancing knowledge. But she is also blinded by it. She doesn’t see the political and religious upheaval threatening her world, registering too slowly the changes happening in her city while her head is in the stars.
Neither the pagans nor Christians are pacifists. Both sides possess that peculiar certainty that defines fundamentalists, that their opponents must by definition be evil. Blood is shed. Foolishly believing they hold the upper hand, the pagans, led by Orestes, retaliate against an insult, only to learn a savage lesson that there are now more Christians than they imagined. This warfare culminates in the destruction of the great Library. Hypatia races with her students to rescue armloads of scrolls, a few of which may literally have been responsible for our surviving texts from Homer and Aristotle. Christians burn the rest.
The loss to mankind is incalculable.
Years pass. Hypatia is forced to cease teaching, yet she remains a resolute scientist, a freethinker, even as this quality becomes more and more dangerous as the Christians solidify their new dominance. Davus, once devoted to his mistress, has now committed himself to God and patrols the streets for dissenters, heretics and Jews. Orestes has also converted to Christianity for political advantage and risen to governor of the city as tensions between the Christians and Jews heat to the boiling point.
Some might mistake this movie as anti-Christian, but it isn’t. It is not heresy. The villain here is extreme fundamentalism and the savage destruction that follows in its wake. Several times in the film, during moments of rampant violence, the camera pulls up to the clouds to look down at the rival sects battling like ants, killing each other over beliefs that are impossible to prove.
How can a powerful, exciting, provocative movie like this be overlooked? Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, a film this epic, this relevant, this emotional would have been celebrated by the film industry and by audiences as important storytelling with something vital to say about the state of our world today. It would be winning Oscars.
Instead, Agora was released unceremoniously in Europe, failed to find a distributor in North America, and has become a poster child for the kind of movies America is wary of.
It is a film that parallels what is happening in the world today. And intentionally so. It’s terrifying how contemporary it feels. It is a vigorously metaphoric message that our culture doesn’t want to hear and probably wouldn’t know how to hear.
This is the story of the moment, almost the precise moment, when the accomplishments of the classical world fell into the Dark Ages, when reason and intellectualism were forced aside by superstition and willful ignorance and religious extremism, when books were burned and learning vilified and freethinking squashed.
Hypatia and her thinking, and her elegant, glorious solution to the mysteries of the heavens, get crowded out of the agora, out of the public sphere, in a horrifically tragic way. And I can’t help but feel that Agora the film never had a chance in our public sphere today.