See “Agora”!

Movie Review

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil
2009, 126 min, rated R

Over the weekend I saw the film Agora. Couldn’t find anyone to go with me so I went myself. Maybe when I described it as a film about the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria in the 4th century it didn’t sound very appealing But this is the most interesting film I have seen in years and I want to see it again!

How can I describe it? Yes, Alejandro Amenábar and his gifted crew and outstanding international cast have made a vivid depiction of Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of the 4th century. Situated strategically at the mouth of the Nile where it empties into the Mediterranean, Alexandria was an important part of the Roman Empire, home to the greatest library in the world and a lighthouse that was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. At the same time the story and the characters cannot help but reflect on much that is happening in today’s world.

Agora is a film about ideas and learning, science and philosophy, religion and politics. The principal character Hypatia is a brilliant educated woman of one of the elite “pagan” families. Her students (all males) include some Christians. One of her slaves, Davus, learns from her presentations and the class discussion when he isn’t performing the most subservient tasks.

But those are only some of the contradictions that start ripping apart the existing economic and social system. The imperial rulers of Alexandria pragmatically, not out of any ecumenical notions, accept the Christians to the extent of being publicly baptized. The Christian faction of that time and place started out by feeding the poor, but then began publicly insulting the pagan gods and throwing stones at gatherings of Jews. The “pagans” and Jews retaliate, only to seal their own doom.

The political debates, the religious oratory, the provocations and intrigue are as modern as anything in today’s news. Only the weapons are old.

I have to confess that I have not seen other films by Amenábar. I was greatly impressed by the sets (Agora was filmed in Malta) and the cinematography, including aerial shots that appear to have been made from a satellite. The film contains scenes of horrific violence that are integral to the story. Several times I was forced to turn away and cover my eyes from the unbearable brutality.

To my mind, there is a link between Agora and the film made of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. That film can stand alone separate from the novel. It too uses a gifted international cast to tell a story set at a time and place of great social upheaval when the control of literacy, education and a library were key to maintaining the status quo. Well, along with the Inquisition.

Today when funding for education and libraries is cut to the bone, when dogma is used as a weapon against progressive change and misdirects young and old alike, Agora gives much to think about in the “marketplace” of ideas.

Photo: Scene at the agora, or marketplace, of 4th century Alexandria, as depicted in the film “Agora.” (



Barbara Russum
Barbara Russum

Barbara Russum is a longtime reader and supporter of People's World who worked in production and program support from 2003 to 2021. She is particularly impressed by the new, young writers who submit stories from their union organizing, campus work, and neighborhood actions. "I encourage everyone to read People's World, share articles on social media, and donate to support the work."