Growing up as an atheist in Catholic schools, I was taught a skewed history of the Church. The true religion arrived with Christ, calming and civilizing the cruel pagan world that preceded Christianity. While my schools acknowledged the contributions of the Greeks, and the heresies that arose in Catholicism’s youth, the Greeks and Romans were, in the end, godless and violent, while the heretics were brief interruptions in the otherwise peaceful development of the Church. True Christians were simply victims, courageous martyrs.
What I learned AFTER I left school was that ecclesiastical history was MUCH more complex than that. Early Christians, famously victimized by the Romans, were later victimizers themselves. This is the part that is often overlooked: Early Christians practiced violence, towards nonbelievers, towards the Jews, and towards each other. There is the second historical oversight: That heresies were neither brief nor amicably resolved. One could say they not heresies at all, since there wasn’t ONE Christianity, but several sects that disagreed with each other on crucial theological questions. When one of these schools of thought squashed all others (again, through violence), the winner got to write the losers off historically as crazy outliers, when in reality, they all began with the same level of legitimacy. The orthodoxy of the Christian faith wasn’t established until centuries after its founding, centuries full of infighting and uncertainty regarding the faith.
In essence, the arrival of Christianity tore the world apart as each of the faiths fought for dominance. Into this fray was born the protagonist of Agora, philosopher/astronomer Hypatia. Hypatia was the daughter of mathematician Theon Alexandricus, the last librarian of the famed Library of Alexandria. Her father encouraged her to study, and study she did, becoming a lecturer in astronomy and philosophy. When we meet Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, she is in the midst of her lectures, trying to ascertain, along with her students, the trajectory of the planets in the sky. Some of her students are Christian, and their religion has recently been endorsed by the Emperor. With unease, Hypatia’s father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) watches the masses embrace this religion while brutally punishing anyone who resists them. Another member of the household is Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s slave, who shadows her from the baths to the lecture hall. Davus is deeply in love with Hypatia because he responds to her beauty, her intelligence and her kindness. However, every time he senses a closeness between them, one of Hypatia’s careless and insensitive remarks remind Davus that he will always be a slave, less than a human, in her eyes.
As tensions among the Christians, the pagans and the Jews come to a boiling point, the Emperor sides with the Christians, who take control of Alexandria. Powerful people like Hypatia’s admirer Orestes (Oscar Isaac) choose to be baptized in order to maintain their influence, and to ensure their safety from the Parabalani, a Christian brotherhood that enforced morality within the city. Davus, who sees the Parabalani’s acts of charity towards the poor and the sick, decides to join them after becoming disillusioned with his status as Hypatia’s slave. Unfortunately, Hypatia’s refusal to be become a Christian puts her at odds with the ascendant Christian order within Alexandria, and with Davus’ news friends.
Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, takes certain liberties with history (Davus is not a historical character), but some of this historical license allows Amenábar to explore themes like the attraction that Christianity held for the poor and the powerless. As expected, the film was controversial among Christians, who said it portrayed their religion in a negative light (it should be noted that the pagans are also guilty of violence in the film).
I feel the film is engrossing for several reasons. Amenábar, director of The Sea Inside and The Others, knows how to craft an aesthetically beautiful film. The performances, especially by Weisz, are outstanding. The movie also explores two dynamics that are rarely explored on film: the persecution faced by skeptics and the refusal to marry as a feminist statement on self determination. This theme abounds in Christian literature about female martyrs and saints who refused to marry. It is interesting that in Agora, this feminist theme is applied to a skeptic. Finally, I love that Agora is a sword and sandal film that is light on battles and heavy on ideas. There are no prolonged battle sequences full of Roman soldiers (although the film does contain brief instances of violence). Some might complain that Agora is too ponderous, but I like its intellectual ambition, and its celebration of female independence and scientific pursuits. It is a film about ideas, big ones, and there is something inspiring about mankind’s overwhelming need to explore the universe, to ask questions, and to obsess about things like the perfection of a circle, qualities that are all embodied in Hypatia.