I’m going to be honest and admit my bias right now. I’m Pagan and I’m a feminist. I was familiar with the story that inspired this film. That didn’t make it any easier to watch this movie. Seeing it brought to life on the big screen made my blood boil and provoked a profound sadness. Agora was a difficult, painful movie to watch.
If you have no idea who Hypatia was or what happened to her, please note that this review contains spoilers.
We are used to seeing movies and shows about classical antiquity as CGI epics with togas, swords and sex. HBO’s Rome, Starz’s Spartacus, and films like Troy and Gladiator are good examples. Though it is visually stunning, Agora is not that spectacle. This is a drama about ideas, faith, and knowledge. At its centre is Hypatia, a Greek astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher in Egypt. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. This was during the fourth century, at the tipping point between paganism and the new religion of Christianity.
In CE 391, Emperor Theodosius I made paganism illegal. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Pope Theophilus of Alexandria. Pagan temples were destroyed and Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob. Many reviewers will say there are no pacifists in Agora, that there is cruelty on both sides, but I disagree. The conflict is begun by Christians and, although the pagans meet it with violence, they do so in an effort to save their way of life. The pagan temples are destroyed, the Library is destroyed, and paganism is forbidden. When that is not enough, the Christians attack the Jews. When that is not enough, they attack the wrongs kinds of Christians. When that is not enough, they go after Hypatia.
Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz with elegance and dignity. She is beautiful, which does not go unnoticed by her students, but Weisz doesn’t exploit that beauty and, as Hypatia, she is unconcerned by the love and lust she inspires. She is passionate only for ideas. I dreaded approaching the end of the movie and of our heroine, but it turned out to be the single weak point in Agora. It goes soft in the end and spares both the audience and the film’s Hypatia of the horror that the real woman suffered. The end made the movie less effective, but only by a little.
Agora premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, but was initially unable to find a domestic distributor. It did eventually, but had a limited release. Some critics said it’s due to the film’s budget and length (it’s just over two hours). Others speculated that it’s because the film is critical of Christianity, but movies like The Da Vinci Code, which is also critical and controversial, received large distribution and was a blockbuster hit. Why?
In films like The DaVinci Code, corruption stems from the hunger for power and wealth. In Agora, violence is inspired by faith. This is an important distinction. Greed, as a corrupting influence, is an external force and a sin. What do you do when faith is the problem?
The Christians in Agora are militant zealots that spread fundamentalism like an infection through Alexandria. In one brilliant scene, the camera pulls up and we look down at the Christians dressed in black and moving rapidly as they riot. They look like cockroaches scrambling. In contrast, the pagans in the film wear light colours and are keepers of knowledge and wisdom, racing to rescue armloads of scrolls as the Christians descend on the Library. Amenabar is clear that Christian fundamentalism is the villain in Agora and it’s hard not to agree with him. This not anti-religious bias; it’s history. At the movie’s end, one of the Christians performs an act of mercy, but it is done out of personal love, not for God.
Watching the movie, I was deeply stirred and I cried for the loss of our temples, at seeing the statues of our gods toppled, and for Hypatia. Agora is a beautiful, absorbing film that everyone should see.