Film review by: Witney Seibold
Maybe “Agora” isn’t really anti-Christian. I mean, it was the Egyptian worshipers who incited them to riot, and they were a persecuted ssect. And they are indeed seen helping people less fortunate than themselves. And when that one guy bashed in the head of that defenseless old man shouting “I am a Christian!,” it was perhaps just an understandable rage. Or when they burn down the library. Or when they force the Romans out of Alexandria by rioting. Or when they begin prowling the streets, enforcing the word of God with violence. Or when they point out that women cannot be scholars, hence enforcing (and perhaps birthing) ideas of modern sexism…
Alejandro Amenábar‘s “Agora” is a boldly preachy atheist polemic about that unfortunate turning point in Christian history, about 390 AD, when Christianity went from philosophy of gentleness and martyrdom to a world power based on exclusion and imperialism. Those early Christians were indeed the ones responsible for tearing down the library of Alexandria. Indeed, there is a lot of actual history to back up much of the violence and anti-Christian sentiment in “Agora,” and, in that regard, the film tells a harsh lesson about how philosophies, even ones still in wide practice today, can be founded in, and are prone to, corruption and violence and imperialism. It also has a lot of historical accuracy in the story if its main character, a Roman astronomer named Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) who was one of the earlier astronomers to observe that planets move in ellipses rather than circles. Hypatia is seen as clean, collected, calm, and defiant against the religious changes around her.
There are some wonderfully human stories being told in “Agora.” Apart from Hypatia, there is the Roman political hopeful Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who starts the film as an arrogant, spoiled brat, and actually matures as time passes, becoming a lover of Hypatia’s. There is also the young slave Davus (Max Mighella) who runs away from his master to become a Christian soldier, and soon finds that slavery is preferable. He also has a loving regard for Hypatia, but is never sure how to act on his thoughts.
The acting is tragic and intense. Weisz plays Hypatia like an enthused scientist with the smarts to perform scientific experiments, but not the social savvy to effectively navigate the social change around her. Isaac was particularly good as an inspiring leader who grew from a callow youth. Minghella has the most thankless task, as he is given little dialogue, having to glower moodily from beneath his heavy brow. Also good was Hamayoun Ershadi (from Abbas Kiarostami‘s “Taste of Cherry”) as Hypatia’s long-loyal slave.
But what starts as an interesting history quickly becomes extensively strident in its motives. There are, perhaps, one too many shots of the Earth slowly drifting through space. Perhaps too many obvious parallels between people and ants (there is a shot of an anthill early on, and then, shortly thereafter, an overhead shot of the Christians destroying the Alexandria library, played in time-lapse photography, so they look like ants). The actual history cannot be faulted, but by condensing events the way the film did, and by dressing all the Christians in matching black robes, giving them all bad teeth and five o’clock shadow, gives the film an unpleasant proselytizing quality that many churchgoers will likely find offensive, and some atheists may find a bit too obvious.