Directed by Alexander Amenabar, Agora stars Rachel Weisz as the philosopher, mathematician, and martyr Hypatia of Alexandria, whose history has long been muddled and contested since the limited release of the film. Many Christians including Catholic evangelist Rev. Robert Barron, condemn Amenabar for the film, calling it an “atheist agenda” despite the fact that the director insisted on a multi-faith cast and crew and the distributors insisted on a preemptive screening by the Vatican, which reported no issues with the film.
History buffs already know how the movie ends, so I won’t worry about spoilers. Agora is a about a woman mathematician, philosopher, and scholar in Roman Egypt. We, the audience, see Hypatia teaching men of prominent families, including Orestes, who admires her but cannot attain her because she loves philosophy first. Davus, one of her father’s slaves (whom she pities), also loves Hypatia, but the latter is oblivious and the former is burdened by his lower status. He begins to turn to Christianity for solace.
Hypatia is caught in a time of power struggles between pagans, Jews, and Christians. The groups commit multiple acts of violence against one another so it becomes clear that no party is clean. The violence culminates in the Christians’ destruction of the Serapeum, a temple complex with statues, classrooms where Hypatia taught her students (in the film), and a library. One of the most moving and frustrating scenes in the film is here, where Hypatia madly salvages scrolls from the library to preserve her first love, knowledge. When Davus arrives in the confusion, she berates him as a slave and goes on about her self-involved way. Even Hypatia, the overt protagonist, is flawed and in fact drives Davus into the very arms of the group destroying the library.
Years pass and Orestes, once a proud pagan, becomes an Imperial Roman Prefect and a Christian. While Hypatia pursues a scientific breakthrough and continues to show little interest in religious titles, the Christians—led by the Patriarch Cyril—begin to eye Hypatia as a source of conflict between them and Orestes. Although a verbal conversion to Christianity would save her, she refuses to accept blind faith, a cornerstone of the religion. Cyril leads a mob to kill her. Davus, still in love with her, does her the mercy of a quick death at his hands rather than a slow one by stoning by the Christian mob, who returns to her corpse and defame it, anyway.
Contentions from Viewers
I didn’t realize how much passion, grief, and dismay the film had evoked in me until the credits began to roll, at which point I felt as if I’d been repeatedly and relentlessly punched in the stomach. It’s not easy to watch, not for anyone, no matter their faith. This isn’t the problem for most viewers, I’ve found.
The movie has its problems, like any historical piece. Nobody complained about the film Gladiator’s historical inaccuracies (despite their abundance from beginning to end) because it didn’t pit modern political powers against each other. Agora, contrary to the knee-jerk reactions of many viewers, doesn’t either.
The prevailing picture of violently conflicting religious groups, the destruction of a library, and the martyrdom of a woman is largely historically accurate according to the research by author Faith L. Justice (as accurate as research can be in an era so far removed from the subject one). Despite the liberties taken with the details, at the heart of the story is a woman with an unpopular religion—philosophy, discovery, and science. She is told both by Cyril and by 1 Timothy 2:8-2:12 to shut up. What modern woman would accept that?
The biggest complaint from viewers seems to be that the film portrays Christians in a poor, fundamentalist light. If Amenabar does this, it’s because Christians did slaughter Hypatia for whatever reason. Moreover, if Christians from circa 400 CE aren’t fundamentalist, what else are they? Progressive, in 400 CE? Likely not. More importantly, an objective viewer sees that no one is clean in Agora. The “atheist” condemns poor Davus, and Christians, Jews, and pagans alike resort to violence. No one is innocent.
In an interview with Scott Holleran, Amenabar says, “I don’t think Christians should be offended and I would feel ashamed if that happened. There were Christians and Moslems and Jews [working on the film’s production] and we insisted on that idea because offending them isn’t my intention. Some of the actors are very strong Christians and we openly discussed ideas while we were on the set.”
Moreover, the distribution company insisted on screening the film at the Vatican, where Vatican officials actually assisted in some of the religious depictions and reported no objections to the film (save for one line from Bible cited by the character Cyril; Vatican officials opted for a softer translation of the line from the KJV in the English version of the film).
The film did not receive much attention in the US but received high marks from critics in Spain and Italy, both rather Catholic countries. To boycott the film for its supposed Christian-bashing would be a shame.
This, of course, doesn’t make Agora an easy film to watch. Much of it is deeply disturbing, disheartening, and frustrating. One does not walk away from a film like this. We sit with our jaws dropped, our stomachs sick, and hearts broken.
Bio: Alexis Bonari is currently a resident blogger at College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching information technology scholarships as well as k-12 scholarship programs. Whenever this WAHM gets some free time she enjoys doing yoga, cooking with the freshest organic in-season fare, and practicing the art of coupon clipping.