Christians offend pagan ideals. Pagans slaughter Christians. Christians retaliate, overtake and eradicate pagan culture. Jews offend Christian ideals. Christians slaughter Jews. Jews retaliate. This is about the extent of Agora, from director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside), but you could easily extrapolate a couple thousand years, throw in some more religions, and get to the state of things in today’s world.
Agora is set in Alexandria at the end of the fourth century A.D., when Christianity overtook other religions to become the dominant force in the region. The film is a passionate epic that, perhaps, takes on a more ambitious worldview than Amenábar can accommodate for.
But it is fascinating on a number of levels, including its portrayal of religious fundamentalism and the evolution of society. How did we come so far, the director seems to be saying, with religion oppressing us so violently? Or have we come far at all?
At the center of Agora is the philosopher, teacher, and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who is currently struggling to understand the orbit of the Earth around the sun. Nevermind the fact that the Christians currently believe the sun orbits a flat earth. Her father is Theon (Michael Lonsdale), who orders retaliation against the rising Christian presence in Alexandria after street mobs offend religious ideals.
Even after her culture is decimated, Hypatia stays true to herself; an admitted atheist, she believes only in the religion of philosophy. What she doesn’t seem to realize is that whether she is right or wrong, despite the greater truths that science and philosophy can uncover, the path of mainstream society will always be dictated by the mob with power.
Three men play key roles in her life. There’s Synesius (Rupert Evans), a Christian student who admires Hypatia but remains devoted to his religion. Orestes (Oscar Isaac) declares his love for Hypatia and is rejected; he converts to Christianity for political gain but lacks true faith. And then there’s the slave Davus (Max Minghella), who converts for freedom but secretly desires Hypatia and cannot reconcile this with religion.
All three actors are memorable here, especially Minghella, who rarely speaks but has incredible screen presence during his character’s plight.
If there’s one flaw in Agora, it’s the attempt to tell two distinctly separate and equally epic stories in a single narrative. At once we’re fed the intimate story of Hypatia, with grandiose diversions to the cosmos, alongside the political and religious struggle in ancient Alexandria, which can simultaneously feel more and less important. It’s an interesting concept, but the pacing of the film suffers as we shift from one viewpoint to the other.
The depiction of Christians in the film is none-too-subtle but startlingly effective; ragged and bearded, with dark skin, features, and clothing, they bear an explicit parallel to the depiction of Islamic Fundamentalists (the current go-to villains) in Hollywood. The pagans, in contrast, are clean-cut and dressed in traditional Roman (Gladiator-era) garb. Jews are barely glimpsed but fit the generic hook-nosed profile.
Unsurprisingly, the film has only received an extremely limited release in the US (exclusively in NY and LA). It’s bound to ruffle the feathers of not only Christians, but followers of any and all religions, which Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil have lumped together and branded as an ultimate evil.
Dramatically, it’s not as effective a technique as what was used in Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom of Heaven, which portrayed similar events without taking sides. But it’s sure to inspire some interesting discussions.