Agora, Film Review by Gaby Soto Grustilina

agora poster

Agora features the story of Hypatia, a pagan philosopher murdered in 5th century Alexandria by a sect of fanatical Christian monks called the Parabalani. Her early life is not very well known, though it is clear that her father was Theon, the last librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria.[1]  Though she came from an academic background, a female philosopher was extremely rare. Nevertheless, she is hailed as a great philosopher, mathematician and even astronomer by most of her contemporaries.[2] Her ultimate death is not due to these virtues, but to her association with the prefect Orestes and the religious atmosphere of Alexandria at the time.

The city was divided into three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Paganism. Christians held the most power, which they were eager to use: “the formerly persecuted were all too ready to become the persecutors.”[3] In the movie, they are shown as the antagonists, with violent leaders like Saint Ammonius and Saint Cyril. While certain details in Agora are assumptions, they are also present in academic books. For example, Cyril has no concrete connection to Hypatia’s murder, but it is assumed to be the case.[4] All in all, the amount of research done was extensive, with both the facts and assumptions mirroring what modern historians state in their work. As a historical movie, the director manages to show all the above facts in a clear and precise manner. However, certain elements are manipulated to broadcast messages of his choosing to the audience.

The accuracy of the events portrayed allows certain elements to stand out, because they come from modern ideas. The religion of each character defines how they look, which in turn reflect problems with modern society at the time it was filmed. The pagans are dressed in clean white or gold clothes, sporting British accents in a well-lit setting.  They are intelligent, forming the majority of Hypatia’s class and the whole of the library. On the other hand, the Christians are dirty, wearing rags that include a turban or a hijab. They are not intellectuals, which the director makes clear in a scene where they insist the Earth is flat. Paired up with their beards and Arabic accents, the resemblance to what the West pictures as a modern day Islamic terrorist is obvious. When told that the film risked the anger of Christian viewers, Amenabar states that (to translate from the Spanish): “it should offend the terrorists of the ETA more, and anyone else that is willing to kill for an idea, more than your average Christian.”[5] Though the movie was set in the fifth century, the way in which the characters are portrayed reflects the fears of 2008. The fictional character of Davus is used to make this clear to the audience.

Hypatia’s slave, Davus, is a completely fictional character that the director inserts into the story. If the movie is seen from an academic historian’s mind, fabricating one of the main characters immediately lowers the movie’s credibility. However the role he plays is not meant to be accurate, but is used instead to give the viewer a clear indication of the major themes of the movie. Davus is a highly intelligent slave that is visually just like any other pagan, though his background will not let him study under Hypatia. However, as a Parabelani this innocent youth is replaced with a weathered man, his curious mind becoming one of murderous rage. This change is a symbol for how Amenabar sees fanaticism: it is not innate, yet once it latches on to the mind it is hard to separate character from fanatic. The Parabelani are a mob, they have no true individuality. They will follow orders so long as they believe it to be the will of god. In the movie, this ranges from trying to save a burning church to massacring the Jews in the agora (marketplace). Davus later realizes what he has become and attempts to save Hypatia, though he is too late. The film ends with him walking away from her corpse while his fellows begin to stone her, showing that he has left the mob mentality that is fanaticism. While he is not a fifth century character, the ideas that he portrays place him firmly in the 21st century.

Another tool that Amenabar uses to input his ideas onto the film is the usage of camera placement. Although the idea that this technique can be used to demonstrate themes is surprising, the director manages to do so brilliantly. He believes that the violent time period of Alexandria at the time “is a reflection of us today” and that the sounds (shouting, insults, suffering, etc.) have remained the same over the centuries.[6] At one point, the camera focuses on an anthill, and then pans out to the characters. At the same time, whenever a riot was shown the director chose to depict it from three different points of view: regular, bird’s eye view, and then space. The bird’s eye view made the humans look like ants: a mass of black dots (Christians) moving around and killing the two other types. When Alexandria is seen from space, only the sounds of the fighting and suffering can be heard. The message is clear: humanity’s battles are insignificant in the wider scope of the world, so they are a waste of time.

In terms of historiography, Amenabar tries to incorporate two histories into one. From the viewpoint of an academic, he is successful. The events portrayed in the movie are as accurate as the sources, while the characters (with the exception of Davus) have an air of authenticity. As far as popular history goes, it is a movie that portrays that era of history well. In terms of the modern themes present, the movie also portrays the people of the 21st century. If a future historian looked at this film and understood the context in which it was made, it would be used to showcase the beliefs, fears and interests of the time in which Agora was made. Although the director inputs his own beliefs (as mentioned above) into the movie, the stereotypes he uses to show them are not solely his own. They are a part of the world in which the West is seen as pristine and intelligent, whereas the East is backwards and dirty. The question of why this would be the case would also interest future historians.

All in all, Agora offers many layers which can be analysed. The dialogue remains in 5th century Alexandria, while the portrayal of the characters gives the film a link to modernity. Whether an it is an ancient historian, a modern historian or simply a viewer, Agora offers insight and entertainment in one exciting package.


Amenabar, Alejandro. Agora. Film. Performed by Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella and Oscar Isaac. Focus Features, 2009.

Deakin, Michael A.B. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007.

“Interview of Amenabar.” Published 4 January, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2014.

“TIFF Alejandro Amenabar AGORA Movie Interview.flv.” Youtube. Published June 4,2010. Accessed March 19, 2014.

[1] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 50.

[2] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 57.

[3] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 21.

[4] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 75.

[5] Interview of Amenabar with, 4 January, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2014

[6] “TIFF Alejandro Amenabar AGORA Movie Interview.flv,” Youtube, June 4, 2010, accessed March 19, 2014,


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