Agora: A New Film In The Pagan Cinematic Pantheon

Agora: A New Film In The Pagan Cinematic Pantheon July 26, 2010

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a weeper. I can squeeze out a tear, maybe two in a sad movie, but crying isn’t something I do often or easily. I wept softly all through Agora. *There may be spoilers ahead.*

I’d been waiting to see Agora for months. Finally the little art-house cinema in midtown decided to show it for a week, and some friends of mine decided to make an urban adventure of it. The nature of our adventure actually added to the experience of seeing the film. We first made a stop by the Dekalb Farmer’s Market, a huge indoor “agora” filled with foods both local and from all around the world. The ceiling is hung with the flags of every nation. People spoke dozens of languages about me and women in shorts shopped alongside women with only their eyes and hands visible. From this modern marketplace of peaceful diversity I arrived at the theater.

Agora is a film with many layers. It’s language is high-flown, but not so flowery as to lose relevance. It’s a story about tension. Upper classes against lower classes, free against slave, occupier against occupied, religion against religion, faith against science, love against indifference, reason against irrational violence and the human mind against the complexity of the universe.

I am going to be honest. It’s hard for me to write this without a bias. The film evoked strong emotions. I’m going to try to honor those feelings without giving into bashing other faiths. As a Pagan, this was not an easy film to watch. Seeing our Gods, temples, centers of learning, priests and philosophers desecrated was painful. Really painful. We know it happened. We’ve read about it. To actually see it makes it real in a way I did not expect. When I saw the large crucifix erected in the Serapeum, I became nauseous.

What was it like, to live in those days when Christianity was rising and temples were desecrated, religious freedoms were stripped and people were killed in the market for reverencing the old Gods? I cannot imagine it but it gives me sympathy for Christians today who are seeing old churches turned into secular spaces, or used for other faith traditions.

The film reminded me that when you let your rights be eaten away, a little at a time, you will eventually lose all. There is a scene towards the end where Orestes, after years of concessions and appeasement still thinks he is holding out against the Christian fanatics, and in the background is a statue of Romulus and Remus suckling at the wolf. The contrast illustrates how far this Republic of free men has fallen.

The conflict is begun by the Christians, who mock the old Gods and desecrate their statues in the agora. This is met in turn by violence from the Pagans, who underestimated the Christians numbers and a bloody riot fills the streets. The result of this conflict is the desecration and burning of the great library of Alexandria. What waste. Rather than peacefully coexist, lives were lost and the knowledge of the Western world was destroyed over an idea about the nature of God.

No one’s hands are clean in Agora. There is mercy and cruelty on all sides. The true victims in Agora are freedom and tolerance. The loss of free and open speech, of sovereignty over your own soul, is a devastating loss. We have lost so much, have fought so hard to regain our spiritual birthright, that I hope we do not forget the lessons of history. Violence is a poor substitute for diplomacy and fear does not a true convert make.

Hypatia is the symbol of human possibility. She is the searching, questioning, open human yearning towards the stars. Long beloved of the Pagan community, her portrayal in Agora is elegant and probing. While the library and serapeum were symbols of the wonders humanity could create, Hypatia is the example of the type of human that creates such wonders.When her light is extinguished, it seems as if all hope has been sucked from life.

I think Agora is one of the most important films the Pagan community has ever received. It explores a world suddenly devoid of our virtues, lost in darkness. We have been climbing back towards life, knowledge and liberty ever so slowly. We cannot lose what wisdom we have gained through science and spirit by acting with rash violence or becoming disenfranchised through appeasement. We must be stalwart, steady defenders of reason and spirit in the new age. Our planet is teetering on the brink. We cannot afford to misstep, and sink into darkness once more.

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  • Reading this the next morning actually made me tear up again. It’s a beautifully made movie, slower than I expected. It’s deliberate without being onerous. The acting is perfect, the spirit of the times is captured in all it’s upheaval and confusion. Aside from my feelings about the movie as a Pagan, this is a really good movie.

  • Overall I loved your review. And I’m going to see it tonight!!!

    But I don’t think there’s any justification for saying that “no one’s hands are clean.”

    In the Graeco-Roman world hundreds of religions were worshipped side-by-side, century after century. Far from suppressing anyone else’s religion, both the Greeks and the Romans were often drawn to “foreign” religions, such as the worship of Isis (from Egypte) and Cybele (from Phrygia).

    The Pagan Roman empire actually served as a conduit for the transmission of religious traditions from one side of the “known world” to the other. In fact, this is how Christianity was able to spread for the first three centuries of its existence.

    When it comes to comparing Christianity and ancient Paganism when it comes to intolerance there is no room for equivocating. Paganism embraced tolerance in theory and in practice — and as a result people enjoyed the freedom to choose their religions — and to change their minds whenever they felt like it. Christians mercilessly crushed all religious diversity, and did so openly and proudly. They bragged about it. They still brag about it!

  • Apuleius,

    I don’t entirely disagree with you but in this film the Pagans did initiate the violence. In this film, no one’s hands are clean. Even Hypatia was more wrapped up in her reveries of science than focusing on the real issues affecting the people of Alexandria: disparity of wealth, slavery, ineffective government and the unhealthy sway that fanatical religious leaders were gaining over the disgruntled populace.

    When we demonize the Christians, we are merely repeating history. The wolf that wins is the wolf you feed. Focusing on the fanatical, fundamentalist and hateful minority of Christians is not nearly as effective as working to build a better world with the majority of Christians who are interested in love, compassion, peace and freedom.

    If we are to move forward and grow as a community, we have to leave the darkness of the past behind, carry it’s lessons forward and focus on the future. We interact with Christians productively and pleasantly every day. Let’s focus on that instead.

  • A very thoughtful review and, I agree, the film was beautifully shot. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (the Library didn’t end that way and Synesius wasn’t a jerk), but that’s what artists do. I don’t go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography “Hypatia of Alexandria” by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog ( – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

  • P. Suf. Viri. Lup.

    I’ve been wanting to see the film for years (literally!–I’ve eagerly awaited it since ’08), but it probably isn’t going to come to my neck of the woods, alas. I’ll have to wait for the DVD.

    One point of information, though: the Library of Alexandria and its destruction didn’t happen in the early fifth century. Pagans often point to this as the time that “the accumulated wisdom of the Western World was lost,” but it wasn’t. Christians will point to the time of Julius Caesar as when the Library of Alexandria was burned, and they’ll often say that pagans therefore brought about their own downfall. In reality, the burned library of Caesar’s time was a book warehouse (though innumerable things were lost in the process); the burned library of Hypatia’s time was the “daughter library” attached to the Serapeum in Alexandria (and, again, innumerable things were lost, and it’s a sad occasion, but not the “event” itself).

    The final destruction of the great Library of Alexandria was after the Muslim conquest, despite some sympathetic Muslims, and especially despite the efforts of its Christian caretakers, who were trying to save it. The judgment by the reigning caliph was that “What in the library is already in the Qu’ran is unnecessary; what in the library is against the Qu’ran should be destroyed.” So, it all burned over the course of months when the books were used as fuel for the public baths’ furnaces.

    This is all detailed in an excellent book called The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora, which I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in this subject.

    I know that this small historical detail doesn’t necessarily detract from the impact of the film, but it’s important to know this, and to not perpetuate a common historical misunderstanding. ;)

  • Sufenas,

    You’re right. I think our feelings about the library and how we remember it tend to be based on emotion rather than history. The movie didn’t accurately portray the history but it certainly evoked the emotion!

  • jill

    Most Christian churches are expanding aggressively in Asia and Africa, they are not targeting the saturated markets of U.S. and Europe now. The Burning Times may be over in Europe and the New World, but they are still burning witches in Africa. So I do not agree with you that telling the truth about the cult of Christianity is “demonizing” them or that most Christians are interested in love and freedom.