Agora - Ashraf Barhom & Max Minghella star in Alejandro Amenábar’s historical epic set in 4th-century Alexandria
Religious fanaticism: as big a threat to civilisation as global warming. Think I’m exaggerating? Watch Alejandro Amenábar’s thought-provoking historical epic Agora and you may reconsider.

Set in the ancient world, Amenábar’s film bristles with chilling parallels to the present day. Remember what the Taliban did to the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001? Their fundamentalist precursors did much the same in Alexandria 16 centuries earlier in a rampage of idol smashing – without recourse to dynamite.

These fanatics were, of course, Christians, and they managed to wipe out centuries of Graeco-Roman learning – embodied in Amenábar’s film both by the city’s great Library and by a remarkable woman who should be better known, the astronomer and mathematician Hypatia, played here by Rachel Weisz.

Agora - Rachel Weisz plays philosopher and mathematician Hypatia  in Alejandro Amenábar’s historical epic set in 4th-century Alexandria

A truly fascinating figure, the historical Hypatia ran a famed school of philosophy and mathematics in Alexandria, the city in Egypt, founded by Alexander the Great around 331 BC, which became one of the Roman Empire’s greatest metropolises.

Yet by the time the film opens, circa 391 AD, the empire is in decline and Alexandria has become a melting pot of different communities, cultures and religions. Christianity is now the empire’s official faith, but the city’s old pagan elite – to which Hypatia belongs -still dominates civic life.

The Christians, however, are very much in the ascent. With a rabble-rousing band of black-cloaked monks known as Parabolani in the vanguard, Christianity speaks to the dispossessed (just as radical Islam does today).

One ready listener is Hypatia’s young slave Davus (played by Max Minghella, son of the late director Anthony Minghella). Smart and ambitious, but invisible to his masters (and mistress), he is one of two men in the film’s invented story who have set their sights on winning the heart of the virginal Hypatia. The other is Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a son of privilege and one of Hypatia’s students (a historical figure, he became Prefect of Alexandria).

Agora - Oscar Isaac plays Roman Prefect Orestes in Alejandro Amenábar’s historical epic set in 4th-century Alexandria

Hypatia, however, has forsworn love in favour of learning. Seeking to understand the cosmos, she strives to discover (centuries ahead of Copernicus) whether the sun moves around the earth, or whether the earth moves around the sun. Her rationalism and scepticism, however, have no place in a world ruled by faith, where reason is shouldered aside in favour of beliefs founded on supposedly sacred texts.

The film’s astronomical sub-plot is entirely invented, I’m sad to say (none of Hypatia’s works survive), but Weisz’s Hypatia does make a great poster girl for humanism. Yes, Amenábar’s depiction of her is idealised, but if you are going to make a hagiography, why not one of a secular saint?

Agora - Rachel Weisz plays philosopher and mathematician Hypatia in Alejandro Amenábar’s historical epic set in 4th-century Alexandria

Chilean-born Amenábar, maker of The Others and The Sea Inside, has pulled off a remarkable achievement with Agora. Shot entirely in Malta, on a fraction of the budget a Hollywood film would command, his film does a convincing job of recreating ancient Alexandria in all its decaying grandeur. Whereas Ridley Scott’s CGI recreation of ancient Rome in Gladiator already appears dated, Agora, using much less CGI, looks lived in and real.

Amenábar’s film has its flaws. With a major climax coming two-thirds of the way through, the narrative is broken-backed and requires copious on-screen titles to get back on course. And, yes, Amenábar does take some liberties with the chronology of the events he depicts. For all its failings, though, Agora is intelligent, stirring and, as the cultural devastation wrought by religious zealots plays out on screen, heartbreaking.

On general release from 23rd April.

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