Thursday, 26 April 2012
In one of my more interesting coincidences of late, I had the pleasure of watching Agora the night before I attended the Global Atheist Convention. Why was watching this Spanish 2009 production featuring a perfectly English speaking soundtrack an interesting coincidence? Because I cannot think of a non documentary like film that does a better job at portraying a lot of that which is bad about religion. It is also hard to think of films that do a better job at conveying the differences between the scientific/humanistic world view and that of the religious. In other words, Agora is the best film to watch in order to turn its thinking viewer into an atheist.
The story of Agora may be familiar to those that watched their first episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It tells the story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), an agnostic (I’m sure she didn’t regard herself in this term) philosopher and teacher living in the ancient Alexandria just as the Roman Empire decided to adopt Christianity. The film depicts the clash between the different faiths that dominated the time: those worshiping the classic Greek/Roman gods, the Jews and the rising Christians. While Hypatia sought to learn about the world and to teach, the various people of faith sought power and self interest; the clash between the two world views, the humble and the powerful, could produce only one result. Thus we witness how most of the ancient knowledge stored in the then great library of Alexandria is destroyed and how much knowledge we’ve lost as a result. That message is amplified through personal events around Hypatia, like the slave and the Roman prefect who are in love with her.
Agora’s story is compelling and very well told, but it also has some issues to face. First and most obviously there is the problem with many viewers knowing what the fate of the historical Hypatia was, thus ruining the tension factor and laying a fatalistic outlook to the whole two hours’ experience.
Second, and more importantly, there is the fact that for a film wishing to be perceived as authentic, Agora takes great liberties in filling up the gaps in our records of historical facts. We know very little about Hypatia, and what we do know tends to come from accounts written several centuries later. It could thus be argued that having Hypatia discover that planets are moving in elliptical orbits around the sun, the way Agora portrays her scientific obsession to be, is more than a bit of a stretch; it took Johannes Kepler using carefully collected observation data to figure this one out many centuries later.
I mention Kepler because, at its core, Agora is the tale of humanity discarding knowledge and falling into a millennium plus of Dark Ages by virtue of religion. Agora does not leave much room for doubt with the viewer on the damaging effects religion of all sorts (but Christianity in particular) has had in taking humanity backwards and exposing the worst of our species. In doing so, Agora does not only demonstrate some of the major issues facing humanity, but rather takes things further to help communicate this point to the masses through popular media. A great achievement by my book to put the likes of Cardinal George Pell in place with as he lies and claims Christianity liberated women.
Best scene: In today’s civilized world it is hard to imagine what ancient clashes of faith might have looked like. Agora steps in to fill the gap and help our imagination through its portrayal of the classic hate driven barbarian masses. These brutes tend to find it so easy to kill their neighbors for silly disputes over imaginary friends. If you had any doubts us humans are an ape species, closely related to other apes species, and descended from ape like ancestors, just watch one of the many stoning scenes Agora has to offer.
Overall: Good execution of important themes give Agora 4 out of 5 stars and render it the exact opposite of a forgettable film. Another great film I can't imagine seeing coming out of Hollywood.