Movie Review: Agora

When I wrote my review of Creation last year, a commenter suggested I see Agora, the 2009 film by Alejandro Amenábar about Hypatia of Alexandria. It took me a long time to get around to doing that, but I’ve finally seen it, and it was worth the wait. It only had a very limited theatrical release in the U.S., but if you have Netflix or similar, I strongly encourage you to see it.

Agora is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late fourth century CE. Egypt is a Roman province in this age, and Alexandria is one of its crown jewels: polyglot, multicultural, an important maritime port, and a center of pagan learning and philosophy. One of its foremost citizens is Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), a female philosopher who’s heir to the Greek intellectual tradition and renowned for her expertise in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Famous and influential men from throughout the province come to her academy to attend her lectures and demonstrations. As beautiful as she is brilliant, she also attracts her share of admirers, including her slave Davus (Max Minghella) and one of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who later becomes the provincial governor.

But in Hypatia’s time, the Roman Empire is changing rapidly. Christianity, once a despised and outlawed sect, has converted the emperor and is rapidly growing in numbers and power. Its preachers, especially the murderous fanatic Cyril (Sami Samir) aren’t shy about exerting their newfound authority: against the city’s Jews; against the philosophers, whom they view as idol-worshipping adherents of a degenerate pagan tradition; and especially against women who defy their biblically ordained role by speaking in public and teaching men. The confrontation between Hypatia and Orestes on one hand and Cyril on the other comes inevitably to a head, and though I won’t give any spoilers, if you know about the historical Hypatia, you probably have some idea of how it ends.

Although the script takes some liberties, which is only to be expected, I was surprised by how closely it sticks to historical fact: including Hypatia’s close relationship with the governor Orestes, the amazing-but-true fact that one of her pupils, Synesius, later became a Christian bishop, and the memorably revolting way she rejects a potential suitor. Also, if you expect to see the Library of Alexandria engulfed in flames, think again: our best accounts say that it was destroyed before Hypatia’s time, and the movie accurately reflects this. (Hypatia and the other philosophers live and teach in another building, a pagan temple/academy called the Serapeum.)

The biggest departure from history is its depiction of Hypatia as on the verge of proving the heliocentric theory of the solar system. As Richard Carrier points out in his review (some spoilers), the real Hypatia wouldn’t have been as empirically minded as this – she belonged to a philosophical school that largely disdained experimentation, although there’s no doubt that she was a gifted mathematician and astronomer, and all the theoretical pieces were in place in the philosophies of the time for experiments like the ones she’s shown to perform.

The movie also hints that she was an atheist, which the real Hypatia wouldn’t have been. However, Agora isn’t by any means a black-and-white, Christianity-versus-science polemic. The pagan philosophers are depicted as just as vengeful, violent, and touchy about insults to their religion as the Christians were, and it’s clear that Cyril’s hatred of Hypatia used her science only as a pretext; the real reason for his antipathy is as a way to hurt his political rival, Orestes. And vicious as he is, he isn’t treated as representative of all of Christianity – other Christian characters, such as Synesius, are on Hypatia’s side.

Nevertheless, without treating all Christians as evil, the film subtly and powerfully conveys how the immoralities of Christian theology made this story and many others like it inevitable. There’s a brutally effective scene in which Cyril boxes in both Orestes and Synesius by reading from the Bible the verses forbidding a woman to teach or have authority over a man, and demanding that they kneel and swear faith in scripture (implicitly denouncing Hypatia).

Although my wife and I both loved this movie, the reviews were decidedly mixed, which I think is because it confused critics’ expectations by breaking with convention. In the beginning, it seems the script is setting up a love triangle between Hypatia, Davus and Orestes – but Hypatia herself never expresses any interest, and that aspect of the story is dropped when the political conflict begins. (Just think, a female character who’s not depicted as primarily interested in romance! That’s a daring departure from Hollywood orthodoxy, even if the film unfortunately doesn’t pass the Bechdel test due to its lack of any other women.)

All in all, this was a beautiful, tragic story that’s all the more powerful for being essentially true. Carl Sagan once wrote that, if not for the descent of the religious dark ages that crushed rational inquiry and stifled human progress, we might have reached the stars hundreds of years ago. Agora is a moving testament to that, and a reminder of how much we lost and how long it’s taken to regain it. More than that, it’s a tribute to the life of an extraordinary woman, and a celebration of the rational principles that she defended and that have always stood for what’s best in humanity. If you have the chance to see it, you won’t be disappointed.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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