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Heaven and Hell

The pagan martyr of Agora versus the flagrant consumers of Sex and the City 2. Guess who wins?


Although they sneer at the very notion of religious faith, skeptics and atheists have their own martyrs—high among them Hypatia, the brilliant, beauteous, avowedly virginal fourth-century philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and Carl Sagan pinup girl. In Alejandro Amenábar’s somber and bloody Agora, her big sandals are filled by Rachel Weisz, who has eyes so wide apart they seem made to take in the whole of the cosmos, and British diction so crisp and forceful that her words could carry far into space. That’s where we first hear her voice, in fact. As she mulls over the trajectories of the stars, the camera descends from on high, way on high, above the Earth itself, to Alexandria, the civilized Egyptian outpost of the teetering Roman Empire, and to the stone hall in which Hypatia holds forth while her students (male, besotted) drink in her words. Weisz is an excellent Hypatia. For all her intelligence, there’s something childish, off-kilter, vaguely otherworldly in her aura. She’s just the type to be gazing into the heavens while around her all hell breaks loose.

The title refers to the public space in front of Alexandria’s illustrious library, although in light of what happens there, a better one might be Agoraphobia. The ruling pagan Ptolemies (among them Michael Lonsdale as Hypatia’s father, the head librarian) attack the obstreperous Parabaloni Christians, who prove to be greater in numbers and more ferocious than the pagan pointy-heads anticipate. When the blood finally dries, the Christian rabble has overrun Alexandria (and the empire), the Ptolemies are kaput, the Jews are (again) in exile, and the library—the repository of centuries of Hellenic wisdom—has been turned into a barnyard. Agora doesn’t merely exalt the empirical outlook of Hypatia, it portrays religious faith—all religious faith—as monomaniacal superstition, a fount of anti-truth. Poor Hypatia is both behind and ahead of the curve. When the hallowed conceit that the cosmos revolves around Earth looks wobbly, damned if she’ll fit the data to the doctrine. She’ll get to the bottom (or top) of it even if humans turn out not to be the be-all and end-all.

Amenábar, who dramatized the schism between flesh and spirit in works as various as The Sea Inside and the ghost story The Others, allegedly didn’t set out to make a movie that cried “A plague on all your houses of worship!” He and co-writer Mateo Gil stumbled on Hypatia while researching a project about people who, in Gil’s words, “managed to rise above the circumstances of the moment of history in which they lived by looking up at the stars and wondering who we are, where we are, and what it all means.” Would that we all could be suitable subjects! In any case, Agora sticks to the arc laid out in Justin Pollard and Howard Reid’s fast-paced The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. (Pollard was a consultant.) It’s true that Hypatia probably spent more time on Neoplatonism than astronomy, but Neoplatonism would have been, by definition, less visual. Hypatia also didn’t have a slave-cum-student named Davus (Max Minghella) who was torn between his love for her and his burgeoning Christian faith, but Davus makes a good vehicle for dramatizing how even good, educated, imaginative people can be impelled to get their scriptures in a twist. One of the best moments is when Hypatia’s onetime student and suitor, the prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac), pushes through a crowd that wants to rip him to shreds, yelling he’s as much of a Christian as they are. Cyril, the bishop who urges his followers to teach Orestes a lesson by visiting their wrath upon his “witch” and “whore,” is better known as “Saint Cyril.”

Given all the weighty colloquia, Agora has remarkably few bad laughs, and the CGI re-creations of ancient Alexandria are so detailed I wanted to freeze the frame and linger on the city’s layout. I did keep being jarred by the chief loudmouth Christian stone-thrower, who looks like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, down to the gap in his front teeth. But maybe the early Christians are meant to look Semitic—they mostly were. It’s too bad Muhammad isn’t in this thing (he hadn’t been born), or fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims could bond on the Agora picket line and just for yuks hurl stones at the women waiting to get into Sex and the City 2.

The most depressing thing about Sex and the City 2 is that it seems to justify every nasty thing said and written about the series and first feature film. The SATC dynamic has always been fragile, but at its most affecting you could see beyond the costumes and artifice and feel the characters fighting for validation—and connecting with one another in their struggle. Now there’s nothing but surface. And what a surface.

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