Agora (2010) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy)

I've liked what the film auteur Alejandro Amenábar has done in the past. Abre Los Ojos (1997) was such a good film that it prompted Cameron Crowe to remake it in English soon afterward. The remake (Vanilla Sky, 2001) wasn't particularly successful for various reasons, but none of those reasons for failure reflected back on Amenábar. The Others (2001) was a nifty little English-language ghost story which drew favorable comparisons to The Sixth Sense. Mar adentro, a 2004 biopic about a quadriplegic who fought for his legal right to die with dignity, won the Oscar for the best film in a foreign language. Those three films are each rated at least 7.8 at IMDb, thus placing their director in the pantheon of greats, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he also wrote the scripts and composed the music for the films, and even did the editing on Mar adentro.

That filmography seemed to bode well for Agora, an ambitious film about Hypatia, the famous Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician who was probably the greatest female intellectual of ancient times. Unfortunately, this project proved as wrong for Amenábar as Vanilla Sky was for Cameron Crowe. In his past films Amenábar has never had to deal with matters requiring scholarly research and historical accuracy. The true story of the quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro (1940-1998) took place in modern times, with all the details well established and documented. The other two films mentioned above were genre efforts, a sci-fi tale and a ghost story, essentially works of the imagination which required no special conformity to any details in the real world.

Agora was a whole different kettle o' crawdads. The common wisdom on Hypatia (hi-PAYSH-yeh) is based more on legend, literature, and folklore than on reality. It would be necessary to systematically separate the real from the fantastical before telling her story, because dozens of generations and various causes have cobbled her story to suit their personal agendas. Recreating the world of ancient Alexandria accurately would require sifting through a lot of dry scholarly texts, and ignoring a lot of conventional wisdom. Even some very brilliant minds have failed in this regard. The scientist/storyteller Dr. Carl Sagan, for example, utterly misreported the circumstances behind the disappearance of the great library of Alexandria. If the great Sagan failed at a task, would you feel ambitious enough to give it a shot? Amenábar was.

He not only failed in this regard, but failed miserably. In fact, he failed so miserably that it seemed as if he did no research of any kind, but simply created characters and times which were 100% fictional, albeit tagged with real names.

Let's begin with the destruction of the "Great Library." This film takes on the Sagan meme that it was destroyed by a fanatical Christian mob in 391 A.D. There are so many things wrong with that premise that it's difficult to know where to begin.

The Serapeum, the building which was taken over by the mob in 391, was not a library at that time, but a temple to Serapis, as you may have guessed from the name. The mob pulled down all the statues dedicated to the ancient gods, but they didn't burn any books, or at least there is no evidence to suggest that they did. There were historians, both pagan and Christian, who lived in Alexandria at the time of the riots, and not a single one mentions the loss of books. The Christian Socrates Scholasticus makes no reference to a library or library contents being destroyed, only to religious objects being destroyed. The pagan author Eunapius of Sardis witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, and was a scholar, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any books. It seems that the Serapeum had hosted a collection of scrolls at one time, but the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing about a decade before the riots, indicates that the building's library function was in the past.

So how was the "Great Library" really destroyed? Well, to begin with, that great library, as it was understood by the ancients using the Greek language, referred to the collection of books, not the building which housed it. The lion's share of Alexandria's collection was housed in a dedicated building, but that was not the Serapeum, which was in the Egyptian sector. The Royal Library was far across town, in the Greek sector, in a building near the harbor, adjacent to the Musaion. (See the map below).

The collection seems to have disappeared in stages, with the first and most important tragedy occurring when Julius Caesar set fire to some ships in 48 B.C., a conflagration which spread to the docks, then to the seaside library. That is Plutarch's version of the story. Plutarch wrote that account about 150 years after the incident, circa 100 A.D, and his account may be spurious, but the important fact is not how the books were destroyed, but the fact that they were gone by then. If Plutarch wrote of the great collection as an artifact of the past in 100 A.D., then it could not have been destroyed in 391. Even if we grant the veracity Plutarch's version, it does not seem to modern scholars that Caesar was responsible for the complete destruction of the book collection. All of the evidence indicates that some of the volumes survived and some of those survivors continued to be housed in the same building, but the collection seems to have continued to deteriorate over the centuries. As for the building itself, we do not know precisely when the Royal Library, the architectural triumph which had once housed the vast collection of scrolls, was finally reduced to rubble. The most likely scenario seems to be that it was demolished in the general destruction that accompanied the wars between Zenobia of Palmyra and the Roman Emperor Aurelian, circa 270 A.D.


Second, the Roman legions in this film were dressed like the legions of the time of Augustus, in mufti with which we are quite familiar from a myriad of films. Unfortunately, this story took place four centuries later, with the key events occurring in 391 and 415. Dressing the Roman soldiers like that was roughly tantamount to making a film about the Iraqi War and showing the combatants dressed like Henry VIII and battling with matchlocks and bows. The pictures below show what the Roman soldiers of the 4th (left) and 5th (right) centuries looked like.


Third, there were innumerable inaccuracies relating to Hypatia herself, many of them major:

  • There is absolutely no evidence of any kind to suggest that Hypatia understood that heavenly bodies moved in elliptical patterns, as shown in Agora. She may have realized that the planets moved around the sun, and she may have known some things about the shape and rotation of the earth, because some ancient astronomers had proposed heliocentric theories and had even measured the circumference of the earth with some accuracy. We don't know that she realized those things, but it is possible that she did. Assuming that Hypatia had a heliocentric theory and some concept of the Earth's shape and rotation were suppositions, but at least they were kinda vaguely plausible suppositions, so I wouldn't be quibbling if the film had limited its dramatic license to those matters. On the other hand, attributing to her the ability to calculate the elliptical solution was way beyond the pale of dramatic license. Copernicus, writing more than 1100 years later, developed a heliocentric model that explained the apparent retrograde motion of the planets, but still required incredibly complicated "epicycle" math because he still envisioned orbital circles to be the only option, and had not yet come up with or even imagined the theory of ellipses. It was Kepler, another 100 years later, who finally had the "eureka" moment and saw that ellipses would solve the math elegantly.

  • Hypatia is pictured as having taught at the Serapeum, and having been present when the Christian mob stormed the gates, making her escape through a rear entrance guarded by Roman soldiers, with a few prized volumes clutched to her virginal breast. The historian Maria Dzielska rebutted this entire scenario clearly in her monograph "Hypatia of Alexandria," citing several reasons, then summarizing her arguments in a single direct sentence, "She and her students could not have been at the Serapeum." In fact, most of Hypatia's lectures and classes, perhaps all of the ones involving her regular circle of pupils, occurred at her own house, a place which was well known to every prominent Alexandrian.

  • Hypatia is pictured in the film as a martyr for knowledge, destroyed by religious fanaticism. That's misleading. Kind, level-headed and reasonable, Hypatia was highly respected throughout the Christian community, as she was by the Jews and pagans. She had little interest in any rituals for any religion. Among her pupils were many Christians including two future bishops, one of whom remained a close friend who corresponded with her for years. She was killed because she simply got caught in a power struggle between two Christians, one the local bishop named Cyril, the other the local prefect named Orestes. The contest turned brutal and Hypatia bet on the wrong horse, so she ended up dead. It is technically accurate to say that she was killed by a Christian mob, but one must be careful with the conclusions drawn from that. You could say the exact same thing about Mussolini, but that would not lead you to the conclusion that he was a martyr for free thought. Yes, Hypatia's enemies were Christians, but so were many of her staunchest supporters. Given her prominence and respect in the city and her support of Orestes, her religious inclinations were irrelevant to her fate. Cyril needed to eliminate her, and that would have been true even if she had been a Christian. It is misleading to portray her as having died a martyr for knowledge, or for Hellenism. She wasn't considered a threat to Christianity, just to "St." Cyril, the guy who won the local power struggle.

  • Hypatia was not a beautiful young girl when she died, as often pictured in legend. The film role was played by Rachel Weisz, who is a sexy 39. That was a typically romantic "Hollywood" approach. Modern historian Maria Dzielska reviewed all the relevant historical evidence and concluded that the real Hypatia was probably about 65 when she died. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe the film's portrayal of her being strangled by a sympathetic friend before the ugly mob could kill her in nasty and painful ways. That is a pure fictionalization. It certainly has no historical justification, and I can see no dramatic justification either.


Setting aside the history, I did like some elements of the film. It looks great and I enjoyed, for example, the overhead bird's-eye-view shots which allow the viewer to get the proper perspective on where people were relative to other people and city landmarks. But I just found the film so irritating in its manipulation of fact to sell its perspective that I couldn't enjoy it the way I might have if it had simply admitted it was just an entertainment picture like Gladiator.

Except, of course, that it isn't really very entertaining.



The link to the right leads to a monograph on Hypatia written by a professional historian.



Rachel Weisz shows her bottom in a bath scene. She looks great, slimmer and more toned than she has ever been before.

She is later stripped naked by the crowd, but that scene consists of distance shots and strategic cutaways.

The Critics Vote ...

  • No graded major reviews online.


The People Vote ...

  • Not yet released in North America
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C-. Boring, long-winded, and inaccurate, it cannot provide any content worthy of its superior production values.

Return to the Movie House home page