Monday, 11 April 2011


Man with a big club in his hands, talking to an old man kneeling at his feet: “I am a Christian!” Smack, down comes the club on the old man’s head. “I am a Christian!” Smack! “I am Christian!” Smack!

That about sums up Agora, a film about 4th century Alexandria which few people bothered to see. Since there are few recognizable faces (Rachel Weisz is the major exception) and since the focus is on dialogue, not action, this is somewhat understandable, but if Hollywood had made it, I still think it would have been popular. Agora was written and directed by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, who made The Sea Inside, and it has the look and feel of a foreign epic made in the 70s or earlier. I’m not sure how much CGI was used, but the sets and extras looked pretty real to me and felt like something from the days when filmmakers loved making films about the early days of Christianity.

In those days, the protagonists were Christians. In Agora, the protagonist is Hypatia, a pagan philosopher (played by Weisz) surrounded by Christians. She is also constantly surrounded by men. Since female scholars were incredibly rare in those days, it is not surprising that Hypatia lived in a world of men. If only the film had stayed with Hypatia, making this the story of her life, as Amenabar originally intended. I think it would have been a far better (and far cheaper) film. But Amenabar let the setting influence him and allowed the film to get bigger and bigger until it was about the end of one civilization and the beginning of another. To me, that was a mistake and not just because of the recurring theme of religious violence. Like many of the epics of old, the film felt out of control and the acting (again, Weisz was the exception) and writing were not up to what was required to regain that control.

Pagans killing Christians, Christians killing pagans, Jews killing Christians, Christians slaughtering Jews. What fun! I heard the words of Jesus somewhere along the way but saw precious little evidence that the Christians of Alexandria at the end of the 4th century had any real idea of what Jesus was about. “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved!” shouts one of the Christian leaders who later leads the slaughter against the Jews and tries to kill a Christian protecting Hypatia. When his friend asks him about forgiveness, noting that Jesus had forgiven those who crucified him, his response is: “Jesus is God. Only God can forgive; that is not something we humans are able to do.” The implication is that since we can’t forgive the Jews for killing Jesus, we have the right to kill them (please note that I am certainly not implying that the Jews actually did kill Jesus).

Among the Christian leaders who lived in 4th century Alexandria was Athanasius (later known as “the Father of Orthodoxy”). While he did not appear in the film, I saw the influence of men like Athanasius in the beliefs and attitudes of the Christian leaders who were in the film (in case there is doubt, this is most certainly not a good thing) and it is therefore not surprising that Christians at that time felt they could and should resort to violence to protect their faith. It is also not surprising that they would destroy the greatest library of the ancient world without a moment’s hesitation.

There were two notable exceptions to the violent Christians. One was a bishop by the name of Synesius, who was a friend of Hypatia’s and who went so far as to tell her that because she was such a good person, she was as Christian as he was, so why not let herself be baptized. Certainly closer to Jesus than those around him, but not quite there. Then there was that man who asked about forgiveness, who happened to be a former slave of Hypatia’s. He was another Christian who stood at Hypatia’s side late in the film, when she was accused of being a witch, and he, too, was not far from the Kingdom of God.

As you can see, I found much to think about while watching Agora. And I found the story of Hypatia, a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, centuries ahead of her time, utterly fascinating. But the rest was too depressing and not really necessary for the story. Since ‘the rest’ was half of the film, I can only give Agora ***. My mug is up but there are too many contributions to the blend.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. The film was beautifully shot, but very uneven. The Christian blogs have been in a bit of a tizzy, but I felt Amenabar was presenting a fable for our times with an anti-fanaticism message. He did distort some history in pursuit of his art--the Great Library didn't end as he depicted and Hypatia's life and science was definitely fictionalized. However, that's what artists do. I don't go to movies for accurate history or science.

    For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) Professor Deakin from Monash University also has a good one that includes what we know about Hypatia's contributions to mathematics, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Prometheus Books, 2007). I posted a three-part series on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, but a "reel vs. real" discussion.