Agora

I watched Agora yesterday when I wasn’t able to sleep. For those who do not know Agora is a film that kind of passed unnoticed. It is about the last custodian of the great library of Alexandria, the Philosopher Hypetia. The film is set in the 4th century AD and shows the rise of christianity in the faltering Roman Empire and the final transformation into the Holy Roman Empire. It is a very interesting look at the conflict between religious ignorance and reason. It shows the way in which absolutist and unquestionable beliefs become tyrannical and always lead to tragedy.

Let’s start with the performances. Everyone in the cast was fantastic although special mention must go to Sami Samir who plays Cyril, the leader of the christians and the one who takes over Alexandria through force, violence, and intimidation. He plays the role of the evil fanatic very well. But the outstanding performance must go to Rachel Weisz who plays Hypetia. She offers us a magnificent performance. She plays the questioning philosopher who is passionate about knowledge with incredible grace and intensity. It is really the performance of a life time. I have seen her in other films and always found her good. But in this role she was brilliant.

The story as I said earlier revolves around the rise of christianity and the gradual transformation of the roman empire into the holy roman empire. The film begins when the library of Alexandria is still functioning as the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world, a place of study, and a place of worship for the pagans. The classes go on undisturbed by the growing disturbance caused by christians, who, emboldened by the fact that their religion is no longer illegal, are causing trouble for the pagans. Some of Hypetia’s students are in fact christian, some pagans, and some it seems jewish (although that was never made explicit). She tries to build a sense of kinship between all her pupils and defuses a situation that could degenerate into violence between a christian and a pagan student through math, which is one of the coolest things I’ve seen. She argues that if A=C and B=C then A=C and since the two students are the same as her, i.e. human beings/good people/learned people, then they are the same as each other.

Anyway, all of this is turned upside down when the pagans decide to respond to what they see as insults to their gods by the christians. Hypetia protects her students from getting involved. However, this turns into a tragedy when the christians, who vastly outnumber the pagans, besiege them inside the library. I won’t go on about the story. But it is very well told. It is slow at times and might not keep the sufferers of ADHD glued to their screens. But if you are a rationalist, or someone who believes that reason is the only real defence against ignorance, superstition, and the destructive power of unquestionable faith, this film is for you. It isn’t necessarily and atheist film, but it certainly is a rationalist film.

The film echoes in many ways Yousef Chahine’s Destiny, which deals with much of the same themes. Chahine’s film is set around the fall of the islamic empire and the struggle between the rationality of Ibn Rushd or Averroes against religious extremists. Again themes of book burning and the dangers of unquestionable faith are echoes of each other. I highly recommend both these films.

I was very touched by this film. It spoke to me on more than one level. Hypetia represents everything I want to be. She is a philosopher who even when surrounded by death, religious and political upheaval, and the rise of extremism is still preoccupied with the question of the heliocentric model of universe and trying to solve it. This is not to say that she doesn’t care about the death and destruction. In fact she actively tries to find a way to resolve it. She is a strong, intelligent, and independent woman in a world of men. She does not accept the role that society wants to impose on her.

She has become one of my new heroes/heroines. In a world that is increasingly falling pray to the barbarism and ignorance of religious intolerance, she represents the power of reason and the intellect. I tweeted that this had happened before and will happen again and that reason is our only hope to keep the barbarians at the gates. We must not forget that superstition and absolutist faiths necessarily lead to religious wars and the destruction of knowledge. Today more then ever we must remember Hypetia and the the fact that knowledge and rationality should not be surrendered to the insanity of superstition.

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2 Responses to “Agora”

  1. A very thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorted some history in pursuit of his art. The Great Library of Alexandria didn’t end as he depicted and Synesius wasn’t such a jerk. However, that’s what artists do. I don’t go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

    • Thank you for the thumbs up and the info. I will go through your blog soon, as soon as I have a little bit of free time. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. It was more about what I felt about this film, with the context of my rationalism and dislike for superstition. Also, thank you for the reference, I will try to get my hands on that book soon.

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