We watched Agora last night on Netflix after Rosa went to bed. I had not heard about this movie coming out at all. It covers the destruction of the Library of Alexandria all the way through the murder of Hypatia, one of the first female astronomers and mathematicians, in ancient Roman Egypt.

In many ways it was spectacular in its scope. The scenery had many distant GPS-looking shots of the ancient library. The sets were as staggeringly grand as some of the old movie sets. And the overhead camera shots left viewers with a feeling of scale and history. In some ways, the way they filmed it, using a few distant, panned-out shots of Earth, with an overlay of pipe music and people’s voices echoing, I was reminded yet again of Carl Sagan’s commencement address, ‘Pale Blue Dot’. I’m sure this was not coincidental. This camera work really highlighted the emotional power of events of history and reminded me that there were real people involved in these events, whose lives were changed, and that their lives changed ours.

The camera work aside, the story itself was a problem. There were good actors. In fact, the actor who played Cyril, the Patriarch who later became St. Cyril of Alexandria, was so dastardly, he made me want to throw a rock through the television screen in the hopes it might hit the character. But good story-telling relies on character-building. And beyond the initial set-up of the characters, they were two-dimensional. It was almost like watching a Wikipedia article about Alexandria, educational purely in history, but not engaging. This is one of the key periods of upheaval in ancient history that began edging the old world into the Christian era, but the people in it were only sketches.

Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, is very devoted to science and philosophy, and therefore, to her fellow humans, and it’s clear that she lives in a precarious world, both as a non-Christian, and an unmarried woman. But we don’t get anything beyond that. The only shots we see of her are teaching, figuring out astronomic solutions, fleeing, or finally dying. But unless she had Asperger’s Syndrome, we don’t really get a sense of who she was any more than I could read online.

The ultra-evil nemesis, Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, is wonderfully manipulative. We see his ascension and his growing megalomania in his speeches to his ‘flocks’. But again, aside from the obvious angle of the story, his genocidal bastardhood, we don’t get a sense of humanity from him outside his comic-book villain aspect.

The slave, Davis, could have had a really great story, but while we see his his love for Hypatia, and his anger that turned him ‘to the dark side’, I didn’t get a sense of his transition. And then he becomes every bit as sulky as Annakin in the Star Wars prequels that I refuse to acknowledge were ever made, aside from using them to make my point. 

Very quickly, Agora becomes a catalogue of people doing despicable things, a testimony to the human tendency to atrocity and mob rule, that is unrelieved at any point. Perhaps that is an accurate view of this point in history. How depressing. I don’t want a Disnified ending, because when it comes to history, there never is. But I do want to relate to the characters as people, not as only as objects of horror. Otherwise I can watch the news.

I think back to other movies or shows that portray similar pivotal points in history, that I think did so with more success: Queen Margo surrounded the events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. It was a disturbing movie, but amazing. There were clear characterizations of VERY BAD PEOPLE, but the characters were rich, and even the people who made bad decisions had some sympathy. Another example was Rome. It covered a longer span surrounding Caesar’s war, the Ides of March, and the ascension of Augustus. Like Agora, it covered a longer period than Queen Margo, and so it took the time to build the characters over the course of a mini-series, and therefore made the whole telling richer. I thought Agora tried to cover too much in too short a time.

Despite the failure of the character building, I was struck by the power of the shots though, and the way the rioting was portrayed, the power-plays and struggles of different groups. While it did nothing for my confidence in organized religion, it reminded me of what is going on right now in multiple areas of the Middle East, the cradle of civilization and maybe a flashpoint for sweeping historical change. It seems we’re in the middle of another such period, and thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, people won’t have to wait a few hundred or even a single year to understand what is going on, or what is at stake.


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