I heard about Agora from Jason over at the Wild Hunt. He first mentioned it in ’08, where he extolled it as likely to be a Pagan-friendly work. Well, that was enough for me, so I waited for it to come out.
And waited some more.
Meanwhile, Jason was giving occasional tidbits: the movie was to center around the life of Hypatia and the destruction of the great library at Alexandria. I vaguely remembered the name Hypatia from posters my mom had around the Math room of Women In Mathematics, but that was about it. So I added to my “Reasons To See This Movie” list “feminism”. Somewhere along the line (likely also from the Wild Hunt, although I can’t find the post), I heard that Christians were up in arms about the movie because it depicted them as violent oppressors of Pagans; you know, because it was historically accurate. So I added “anti-Christian” to that list. Anything that upsets the Christians is probably worth my time.
Well, it has finally been released and I went to see it yesterday. (Two days ago, it was playing at two, count them two, theaters in LA. Yesterday, it was down to one. If you have any interest, find a local theater now or it will be gone.)
A. Maz. Ing. While it did treat Pagans perhaps more sympathetically than Christians would hope, what I got out of it was more atheistic than pagan. The film takes place in the midst of the clash of three religions: the Hellenic/Egyptian paganism of the elite class, the Christianity of the slaves and masses, and the Judaism of the middle class. And clash they do. The film impressed upon me the fact that religions are a danger to those around them; this was true across the board.
Further, two of the main characters changed religion: both for an increase in their social status. Religion, then, is viewed both as something changeable and as expedient. Both undergo crises of faith which are met with two responses. One is told to neither doubt nor question; the other is guided by a friend toward an even deeper faith. In the end, the first realizes the error and acts to undo the harm religion has caused; the second becomes ever further entrenched in the religion. I found this to be a wonderful allegory to how religion often treats its adherents: those who are given the strongarm (don’t question, just have faith) are more likely to leave while those whose questions are dealt with sensitively end up further in. Perhaps, also, the relationship with the questioner’s answerer is important; for the one who leaves, the apologist is a cold, violent missionary; for the one who stays, the apologist is a trusted friend who knows the true reason for the questioning.
The film is also quite a good piece of historical fiction. It takes a time about which much is known and brings to life certain characters about which slightly less is known. The major events of the film happened; and likely happened in the way they are depicted. The relationships between the characters may or may not be true, but are a reason to watch the film. The New York Times‘ film reviewer said, that there is no sugar coating on the difficult subjects and certainly, horrifying events like the destruction of the library are shown in almost gory detail. The sins of humanity’s past are laid bare for us to see. And for us to wonder whether or not they are truly in our past.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I found it to be a rousing film for feminists, historians, and atheists alike.
Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the depiction of the Christian morality police, the Parabalani (here is the Catholic Encyclopedia entry and the Wikipedia one, which is mostly just copied, although there are some word changes which make it a wee bit more objective). Their depiction in the film was quite interesting. The Mutaween they were not, but they were certainly violent defenders of the [Christian] faith.
Definitely worth watching, whether to enjoy the rich visuals of Hellenic Egypt, to savor the ever-wonderful storytelling of Alejandro Amenábar, to bask in the feminism of the world’s first-known female mathematician (and astronomer and philosopher), to stick it to the Christian man by enjoying a world where pagans held power and Christians were the rioting mob, or to revel in the antitheistic message of a time when violence ruled all religions—just like today.