Last week I saw Agora. I was initially attracted by the director, Alejandro Amenàbar, who had impressed me with Abre Los Ojos and The Others, but the subject matter also intrigued me: an ancient Egyptian philosopher and astronomer called Hypatia, inter-religious conflict, the destruction of the library at Alexandria. The fact that it stars Rachel Weisz didn’t hurt either.

The film is absorbing and well acted, but more importantly it has much to say about knowledge and the search for truth, women’s position within society, and multiculturalism. I was moved by Hypatia’s intelligence and her determination to discover the true nature of Earth’s place in the universe, regardless of the danger in which she was putting herself. Some Christian groups have complained about the way in which Christianity is portrayed in the film. On the one hand they are undoubtedly the villains of the piece, violently suppressing controversial assertions, oppressing dissenters and telling Hypatia basically to get back in the kitchen. On the other hand one of the most moving sections of the film comes early on when an evangelical Christian converts someone by teaching him how to show charity to beggars. The pagans and Jews both come into conflict with the Christians, but none of the groups are shown to be entirely blameless, and in the end everyone has blood on their hands. It’s precisely the fact that we are given no easy answers that makes the film thought-provoking.

By the way, the film features many of those now clichéd shots where we zoom in from space to a close-up of  a scene on Earth. The difference here is that these shots are some of the most technically impressive and seamless ones I’ve ever seen (well done to Spanish visual effects company El Ranchito), but they’re also appropriate in the context of the film, rather than a meaningless visual flourish, as they represent literally a God’s eye view.


11 thoughts on “Agoraphilia

  1. Erik R. May 3, 2010 / 4:32 pm

    Wow. That last line in the trailer so elegantly sums up the fundamental incompatibility between Science and Religion (and thereby the entire movie):

    “You don’t question what you believe. I must.”


    • simonlitton May 4, 2010 / 8:14 am

      I don’t agree that science and religion are incompatible (and I don’t think the film says that either). The film criticises fundamentalism and intolerance, not faith per se. They’re posing different questions: science tries to explain “how”, religion tries to explain “why”. Besides, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God.


      • aquariumdrinker May 4, 2010 / 2:40 pm

        This seems too tidy. “How” and “why” are often very difficult to separate. And we are a kind of ape that finds it easy to simultaneously hold incompatible beliefs. I agree that science and religion are capable of keeping it clean on a day-to-day basis. But taking the long view, the triumph of either would mean the marginalization of the other.


  2. J May 3, 2010 / 4:38 pm

    I’ve never heard of this film, but it looks fascinating! Looking on IMDB, I don’t see a U.S. release date. I hope it comes here at some point. I’ll keep my eyes open for it. Thanks for a great review.


    • J May 3, 2010 / 4:41 pm

      I just saw a comment on IMDB, where someone said that the film is supposed to be released in New York and Los Angeles this summer, which usually means it won’t get here. The summation for the L.A. Times (I’m quoting a comment, so this is unverified):

      “Two slaves compete to win the heart of a beautiful astronomer.”
      Can they make it sound more lame?


      • simonlitton May 4, 2010 / 8:16 am

        Maybe they think it’s too controversial to release in the heartland? Shame.
        Also, only one of those characters is a slave.


  3. Di May 3, 2010 / 5:29 pm

    I thought you were kidding, having read this and watched the trailer, I do believe it’s a ‘must see’. Thanks. I would have missed it.


  4. simonlitton May 4, 2010 / 2:54 pm

    Aquariumdrinker: I know that was trite, but I was trying to succinctly make the point that science and religion aren’t in competition with one another. With the exception of creationists, most people don’t look to the bible for an explanation of the workings of the universe, just as most people don’t ask a scientist if they want to know the meaning of life.
    I don’t see any problem with looking to science to explain how the cosmos evolved, but also believing that “God” was the initiator/creator.


    • Erik R. May 5, 2010 / 4:21 pm

      The problem with the Creator deity is that once you truly understand evolution, how complex things came from simple things, and those simple things came from even simpler things, etc., is that you go all the way back in time to the beginning and then you find the most complex thing of all, at which point you are asked to kindly stop trying to explain where things came from. Blah blah blah turtles all the way down.


  5. jagosaurus May 7, 2010 / 1:50 pm


    I’d love to see this, but I have to admit that the treatment of both Hypatia and the library makes me seethe when I read about it in a book. Seeing it re-enacted on a large screen might cause me to explode.


    • simon May 7, 2010 / 2:11 pm

      Yeah, it’s not exactly comfortable viewing. But then, it shouldn’t be.
      On the other hand it’s also inspirational. The film as a whole, I mean, not the violence.


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