Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Hollywood has a long history of misrepresenting historical events -- altering timelines and characters, changing motivations, and injecting an alarming amount of anti-Christian prejudice. Agora is no different, a film that approaches a fascinating historical figure without a shred of respect for what actually happened.
The Library of Alexandria holds the most precious philosophical works in the world, and among its many admirers and protectors is the beautiful philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz). A student of progressive thought, an instructor in philosophy and science, and obsessed with circles and their relation to the movement of the earth, Hypatia is much loved by her students and colleagues alike. One of her most ardent admirers is Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who hopes to inspire her to marry him -- but in doing so she would lose her independence and fall beneath his influence, meaning she would be forced to fall silent and no longer teach. Hypatia is convinced he does not love her for her mind as much as for her body and rejects him, not realizing as she does so that her world is about to be torn apart. Christianity has spread throughout Alexandria now that it is no longer illegal and in the wake of slaughtering Christians defacing Pagan statues in the central square, a mob descends upon the great Library with the intention of burning its contents.
Caught up in the midst of this religious fervor is Hypatia's slave Davus (Max Minghella), who is also in love with her -- but cannot tell her as much, for it is forbidden and inappropriate. A Pagan who has converted recently to the new faith, Davus abandons her and joins the mob, finding his calling while at the same time questioning the motives of the Christians that surround him. In later years, the violence between the Pagans, the Christians and the Jews will escalate into a bloodbath.
Where the film succeeds is in the strength of its characters -- each of them are interesting and likable in some sense, even though some make poor decisions. Our heart goes out to Davus when he offers to take a flogging for a female servant who admits to professing the Christian faith. He is not religious then, but becomes more so later on. Hypatia is a spunky heroine and in some sense easy to identify with, both in her yearning to discover truth and her resistance toward submitting to the men around her. Orestes appears at first to be something of a jerk but eventually we discover that his love for her is genuine -- and he risks his life in defending her honor. Another figure, this one first a student and then later a Bishop in the Church, comes across as adhering to the teachings of Christ at least -- compassionate, forgiving, and respectful to Hypatia.
On a purely cinematic level this film works in a lot of ways and fails in others -- minor characters are not well developed and many of them look so much alike that for awhile I didn't know who anyone was; the story likewise seems to have no internal focus, since it cannot decide what its story is really about -- or what it wants to say about its characters. It is part romance (that never goes anywhere), part historical fiction (rather than fact), part adventure, and partly a push for science and philosophy while at the same time denouncing religion. Its underlining message is that philosophy unites and inspires whereas faith divides and incites violence.
It throws Christians to the forefront of controversy and depicts them poorly while disregarding historical events. While other religious groups incite violence and also do horrible things, it is the Christians who are responsible for the most horrific acts -- such as throwing a Pagan priest into a fire, slaughtering Jews on the streets, stripping women naked, and stoning people to death. The director implies that the Christians of Alexandria are comparable to the Nazis. Nor does he want us to miss out on the fact that they profess to be Christians -- he has one minor character cry out, "I am a Christian!" before beating an old man to death in the street.
The costumes and acting are marvelous but that it so deliberately maligns the facts displeases me very much -- and I am not the only one to be offended by it, as various atheists have also proclaimed their disappointment as well. I have never seen Christianity as the enemy of philosophy and never will.
Hypatia is nabbed off the street and has her clothing torn off -- there are several distant side shots, as well as one that reveals part of her breasts. Then she is either smothered to death or prevented from breathing until she passes out; at which point she is surrounded and pelted with rocks (off camera). We see her naked from behind early in the film as she rises out of a bath (it's implied her servant Davus sees her fully nude). Davus enters her room and forces a kiss upon her, pushing her up against a column -- he then is overcome with remorse and grief and implies she should kill him.
Content-wise, the primary offender is brutal violence -- much of it is distant and implied, but wanton scenes of individuals and masses being stabbed, hacked, or stoned are shown repeatedly for large chunks of time. Hypatia walks down the street in horror as people are killed all around her -- she sees a woman's clothes being torn off (nothing explicit), and a man lying a foot away from his head.
There is strong anti-Christian content throughout.