I sometimes suspect that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is the best thing television has produced. Look beyond the host’s ill-matched wardrobe and floppy hair and you see a powerful argument for the urgency of curiosity. It’s never too soon to get at the heart of knowledge about the world, Sagan insists, and his joyful impatience is infectious. In one episode, Sagan wanders – via the rather dated miracle of 1980-era video compositing – through a model of the famed Library at Alexandria. He laments the loss of its ancient tomes, and vividly describes its destruction at the hands of an unruly mob amid the collapse of the old Roman Empire.
One of the chief flaws of Alejandro Amenabar's Agora – a cerebral, polite, well-intentioned if rather inert dramatization of the Library’s last days – is that in its hurry to show the great building reduced to ruins, it never quite shows us what it was like at its height. Produced with orders of magnitude more money and special-effects technology than Sagan had at his command, it nonetheless doesn’t pull off the central feat of making us believe the Library lives. Oh, we get a few perfunctory shots of scrolls on shelves, and many a scene of Agora’s philosopher heroine Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) lecturing about the Ptolemaic system. But there’s not so much as a leisurely pan across the library’s lobby to let us bask for a moment in its glory – and I found myself craving even more. How were scrolls organized? Copied? Lent and returned? How big was its research staff? How far did travelers come to see it? The Library – the greatest spectacle in Agora and its animating spirit – deserves a sequence as lovingly detailed and meticulously layered as the “follow-the-money” montage that opened Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
Agora’s backdrop is the turmoil and religious divisiveness attending the rise of Christianity in the late Roman empire, but its dramatic core focuses on three of Alexandria’s residents: Hypatia, the restless philosopher who would rather peruse the movements of the stars than notice the well-muscled suitors panting after her; Davus (Max Minghella), her slave, a scientific prodigy held back by the circumstances of his birth; and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a nobleman who loves her but is rebuffed by her and content to relegate himself to the Friend Zone. Both Davus and Orestes instinctively sense that Hypatia (or at least her fictional, idealized incarnation in this film) is a genius, and that genius is a thing to be protected at all costs. They do their best, but their efforts are complicated by a succession of ancient robe-and-sandal-wearing mobs that occasionally seem to have wandered off the set of The Life of Brian. This moment in history, the film argues, is incompatible with Hypatia’s brand of unmoored curiosity, and she will pay the price for it.
Hypatia and Davus are both depicted as individuals centuries ahead of their time. Hypatia prefigures Kepler and Copernicus by a millenium as she gropes toward the truth about the Earth’s movement around the sun; Davus, chafing at the slavery which binds and limits him, is drawn to the egalitarian ethos of Christianity. Their different social status, and the exigencies of melodrama, put them at odds, but you can sense Agora’s screenplay grappling with inconsistencies of character. Davus reveres knowledge yet willingly participates in the Library’s desecration; Hypatia grimly plays the martyr when one would think she’d use every possible trick to make sure her new discoveries see the light of day.
Agora is a handsome production – it has the requisite impressive architecture (hard to know where the set-building ends and the CGI begins), throngs of extras running through streets, and a few images that will stick in the memory, including a dazzling shot that zooms, like the classic short Powers of Ten, from the globe in space to a building at the center of Alexandria. Weisz brings a welcome dash of specificity and fussiness to Hypatia – rather than a serene, all-knowing patron saint of science, she’s a compulsive workaholic, exasperated at her own social ineptitude. There are moments where the film transcends the portentous posturing of the Biblical epic, and if at other moments it fails to do this, it’s nonetheless strangely comforting to be reminded that Biblical (or, if you like, post-Biblical) epics are still being made from time to time. What’s perhaps most pleasing about the movie is its essential love of rationality, of discussion, of the camaraderie of students in pursuit of knowledge. Would a group of scholars, besieged in their own library by an angry mob and awaiting an uncertain fate, really pass the time by discussing Ptolemy and Aristarchus? Well – now that you mention it – they might, and one of Agora’s most touching moments has an elderly librarian sitting on the wall, gesturing to the heavens as he casually describes and then dismisses heliocentrism. The script intelligently places Hypatia’s hypothetical discoveries within a continuum of ideas – she’s not the first person to think the earth might revolve around the sun, but perhaps the first person determined to make the idea work.
It’s tempting to boil Agora’s plot down to a simple conflict of science versus religion, which the screenwriters are clearly at pains to prevent. The villain here – represented by the bishop Cyril, who leads a Christian takeover of the city – is extremism, not religion per se. Wise enough and true enough and pragmatic enough, but a little dull. When it’s so easy to agree with a film’s moral, the mind wanders; after a while you get tired of being the choir that’s preached to (a problem that also plagued Ridley Scott’s nonetheless admirable Kingdom of Heaven, which would make for a nice “can’t we all just get along?” double feature with this film).
The truest emotion at work in Agora is not tolerance or wisdom, but impatient frustration that the chaos and noise of history may have set back the cause of human knowledge by so many years. For all its flaws, the film powerfully evokes this passion – this endearing undergraduate disdain for the imperfections of history, just as one of Hypatia’s students complains about the inelegance of Ptolemy’s model. Simply for putting the viewer into that energized frame of mind, Agora rewards viewing. Just watch Cosmos first.