By any conventional measure Agora the film sucks. There’s no onscreen sex, the good guys variously die and are disillusioned at the end, it’s centred on an unknown philosopher played by Rachel Weisz, and the underlying romance is a story of unrequited love.
And if that wasn’t enough already it pretty much offends 80% of the average US movie-going audience – at the time of writing, 6 months after release, it’s made 98.4% of its revenue outside the US. It’s the sort of thing that your average broadsheet film reviewer wouldn’t want to touch with a bargepole – because a positive review is probably guaranteed to lose you subscriptions from the faithful.
It’s almost impossible to imagine how the producers ever managed to get it funded.
Except this is a film that you will still be thinking about a week after you saw it and one of the most pointed polemical films you’ll see in years.
This is a movie with a message. And what a message it is for today.
Despite being set in Alexandria in the 4th century AD, it is a very thinly toga-veiled allusion to the secular and religious clashes of the twenty-first century. Whilst it has been reviewed as particularly anti-Christian, every religion gets it in the neck (usually literally) as we watch the conflict between the pagans, Jews, and Christians play out in the city (the Christians just happen to win).
And the biggest loser of all: reason, because unlike the facts religion is the thing that ‘cannot be questioned‘ literally or politically. A point most strongly made (possibly with historical license) when the great library of Alexandria is sacked and its scrolls burned, and then is physically occupied to become the HQ of the Christian church in the city, as well as a barnyard to house chickens and goats.
Somewhat ironically, given the film’s subject, the Christian movie guide quoted in the title of this review prints the address details of the producers next to the guide’s review so as a latter day moral enforcer you can contact the producers and set them to rights…
An old philosophy professor that I knew used to start his lectures to first year students by talking about the famous ’filioque‘ dispute between the Eastern Orthodox (Christian) church and the Western church, about ‘whether the Holy spirit proceeded from the Father, or the Father and Son‘.
What seems like the ultimate theological irrelevance became one of the crucial differences splitting the Christian church and indirectly contributing to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1204 some 800 years after this film is set. Yes, whole political empires collapsed as a result of this obscure theological argument with the breaking apart of the Eastern and Western European political blocs.
“Why on earth,” this professor I knew said, “should thinkers concern themselves with a dispute that can never be proved either way?”
While Rachel/Hypatia in Agora is trying to explain the movements of the planets in our solar system by matching astronomical observations to different geometric shapes, we are told by one of the Christian moral enforcers in the film that the sky is ‘a big chest with heaven at the level of the lid’. At the end of the film Hypatia then dies, her discovery lost in the Dark Ages that follow, until nearly 1000 years later and Galileo.
This film is a worthy cinematic (and less ponderous) accompaniment to religious critiques from people like Richard Dawkins. In this regard only, it is possible to agree with the Christian movie guide review referred to in the title.
However this Christian reviewer misses the point: this film is not about Christianity, paganism, Judaism, or for that matter Islamic sectarianism (which of course as a religion didn’t even exist in the fourth century). It’s about the way that tenets of religious faith become unquestionable, and the inability of reason to solve faith-based disputes like that of the filioque, given time, leads to violent intolerance of dissent.
In a life imitating art moment, a church in Alexandria was car-bombed at New Year killing 21 churchgoers and injuring 70, itself following Christians rioting in Cairo in November.
No clearer example could be imagined of the relevance of Agora’s message.
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