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Agora: Yet Another Brother

Agora, says the Dresser, is a chick flick that crosses the line. Alejandro Amenábar's film, an historical drama, about the Greek mathematician-philosopher-astronomer Hypatia (she died 415 AD), depicts a woman scholar (played by the stunningly beautiful and skillful actor Rachel Weisz) who determined, well before Galileo, that the earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. 84145-agora_341x182.jpgHer main mistake, in this cinematic interpretation, was she loved her dog and work more than the men who loved her beyond reason.


In our time of religious strife and anti-intellectualism, this film makes it viscerally clear that the scientific mind of this pagan was far superior to the tidy Jews and the unwashed Christian militia (lots of talk about baptism but nobody except a few of the high priests looked reasonably bathed). Why? Because both Christians and Jews dirtied themselves as rock throwers. The Dresser won't bother you, Dear Reader, with the blood and guts produced by other kinds of weapons in this movie.

In Hypatia, we meet a woman who does not fear criticism from the public. No agoraphobia for her, she makes her stand in the Agora. This is a woman who loves no man sexually, disdains her own menstrual blood--to dissuade an ardent suitor she hands him a handkerchief stained with her blood, and considers herself part of the brotherhood who she teaches about the universe and planet Earth. agora04handkerchief.jpgThe heaviest emotional load is the sacking of her library, which is the Library of Serpeum in Alexandria Egypt. Amenábar makes the Christian rabble look like vermin as they destroy the scholarly property. The Dresser's heart could hardly bear the loss of the neatly stored scrolls written with irrecoverable wisdom. Oh, shades of book-burning Nazi Germany and the Chinese Cultural Revolution!


The Dresser thinks Agora is the perfect antithesis of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are Alright. Both films, neither of which are flawless, made the Dresser think about women's issues but in very different ways. The Dresser recommends checking out what Scene4 columnist Kathi Wolfe had to say about The Kids Are Alright to more fully appreciate the Dresser's comparison. Cholodenko's film focuses on the family world of a lesbian couple--Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore)--invaded by one man--Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who threatens their union. How? Mainly through their kids who are the product of his donated sperm. The kids find him secretly to satisfy their curiosity about themselves.

Two catchy urban phrases stand out in Cholodenko's film: "brother from another mother" and "shut the front door." For the Dresser, both phrases bring Agora to mind in very literal ways. The expression "brother from another mother," which Paul uses in a high five with Nic to say he feels like family with her (despite the fact that he has been shtupping Nic's partner Jules), rings true when Hypatia refers to herself and her students as a brotherhood. And by the way, Hypatia has no women around her. Even her slaves are men.

Used in Kids by Paul, the expression "shut the front door" means he can hardly believe what he is hearing. Applied to Agora where Hypatia's people literally have to slam shut the huge doors of their scholarly citadel to stop the Christians from killing them (without realizing how large the population of Christians had become, the scholarly pagans decided they had to defend aggressively the statues of their gods which the Christians were assaulting), the term "shut the front door" is a caution about keeping one's mouth shut.

Because Hypatia is an A plus scholar, the Dresser turns to Kathy Fagan's poem "Portrait of a Girl as the Letter A" to cap off this mini film review. The poem is lush with imagery evocative of Agora.


As in -line or -frame.
As in alpha, angel,
Arms of a merciful Jesus

Extended. As in clockhands
Signing 7:25, compass
On point, cloak rounding

A corner. It's summer
Where she is and she's angry
There. As in feet spread

Apart and planted for the camera,
Sleeveless skin peeling
Like eucalyptus bark

In light the color of eucalyptus:
Time dried to a powder.
She is the angular thing

On the planet. Her body,
A brand on it: scissor, wedge,
Tent opened on

A hill's ascent; the horizon,
Her bar horizontal.
The beauty of architecture is

In the standing. As in ox
In its yoke, as in
Ace played, lancet

Arch, little bird
With folded wings
Waiting. Look at her there

So like herself! The sky
Is a room behind her, and she,
The article in it, the letter of

The name she stands for.

by Kathy Fagan from
Kathy Fagan Greatest Hits 1983-2003

Copyright © 2003 Kathy Fagan

Photos: Copyright © Newmarket Films


Comments (2)

I am not sure how The Dresser felt about "Agora." I get the theme, but did it work? DO we care about Agora after?

The Dresser:

The Dresser went to see "Agora" with two Johnnies -- these are graduates of the Great Books approach to an undergraduate degree from St. Johns College of Annapolis. Because the filmmaker was working from an historical story about an ancient library populated by students who were pagans, Christians, and Jews, we three came in expectation of an intellectual engagement.

Hypatia, as portrayed by Rachel Weisz, is a mix of innocence, intellect, and sex appeal that mysteriously defies how she cooly brushes off the men who want her. Weisz is fascinating to watch. Does she change over the duration of the film? No. She would rather die than give up her intellectual freedom. As a strong woman herself, the Dresser admires Hypatia but also did not see her as someone with street smarts.

Despite the fact that Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in "The Kids Are Alright" do not pull off being lesbian lovers very well, their characters Nic and Jules each are changed by Paul and how their children have changed because of Paul. Nic and Jules are human while Hypatia is closer to being a god.

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