Somewhere in the east, adherents of religious sects are killing one another. Rationality and women’s rights are the predictable collateral damage. Agora could easily have been no more than a sword-and-sandals epic for the Iraq War generation, nodding to the standard set of liberal sensibilities. But while it competently fills this brief, Agora achieves much more. It is a brave and deeply thought-provoking film.
Plot synopses focusing on the relationship of Rachel Weisz’ fourth-century philosopher Hypatia with her slave Davos, do Agora little credit because its strength lies elsewhere. It deals powerfully with the intimate and the personal, but in a very different way from a suburban character-piece. Like Hypatia, who looks at the stars to understand their movements, Agora deals with what can be observed: the working of historical forces, most importantly the fall of Rome and rise of Christianity – two sides, we understand, of the same coin.
Some of the film’s Christians are more psychopathic than self-righteous, but Christianity itself is not dismissed as mere metaphysical insanity. Perhaps it is a failing, from a theologian’s point of view, but doctrines and dogmas are nowhere to be found. To the average convert, what distinguishes the new faith is its role as a social movement of the poor and disenfranchised, not least slaves like Davos. In this context, it seems almost irrelevant to point out the tragic absurdity of a slave beating his master with a club while shouting, ‘I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian!’
The stroke of genius, and Agora‘s reason for being, is the juxtaposition of this revolutionary passion with an equally convincing portrayal of pure intellectual curiosity. It is an achievement to make scientific experiments this dramatic, comprehensible, and genuinely interesting. The shots from space succeed remarkably well at instilling cosmic wonder. We sympathise with the Roman prefect Orestes, who becomes torn between pragmatic politics and awe-struck admiration for Hypatia’s unearthly pursuit of reasoned understanding.
Ultimately, even with its ambiguities, Agora is a celebration of enlightened scepticism. It locates religion on the streets, and rationality among the stars.