Super-Atheist Gorgeous Epic Film: Agora (2009)

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 10, 2010 in Atheist Film & TV,Science

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Agora is an epic historical drama about Hypatia, the 4th century astronomer-philosopher of Alexandria, Egypt who was killed by a Christian mob who falsely blamed her for causing religious turmoil.

The Spanish “Religious Anti-Defamation Observatory” protested the film for “promoting hatred of Christians and reinforcing false clichés about the Catholic Church” – by portraying what Christians actually did to an ancient scholar, of course.

Director Alejandro Amenábar is an atheist, and though he says he didn’t intend the film to have an anti-religious message, I think he failed. Agora is just about the most viciously anti-religious film I’ve ever seen.

Hypatia, a pagan, is portrayed in Agora as an heroic atheist:

CHRISTIAN: The majority of us here… have accepted Christ. Why not the rest of you? It’s only a matter of time and you know it.

HYPATIA: Really? It is just a matter of time? …As far as I am aware, your God has not yet proved himself to be more just or more merciful than his predecessors. Is it really just a matter of time before I accept your faith?

CHRISTIAN: Why should this assembly accept the council of someone who admittedly believes in absolutely nothing?

HYPATIA: I believe in philosophy.

(Prediction: Richard Carrier will love this film.)

In Alexandria, pagans and Christians live together, and both are portrayed as superstitious and immoral. In an early example, one Christian charlatan ‘proves’ to a crowd that his God is real by walking across a fire without burning, while he throws a pagan into the flames who, of course, catches fire. Later that day, a pagan lord whips his slave when the slave reveals he is a Christian.

agora2The film also contains some great bits about ancient scientists, and how though they were almost all wrong, they were still adept at inferring plausible models of the universe from their limited observations. For example, a student shows how the observed ‘loops’ made by certain planets can be explained by a model in which the planets orbit the Earth but also move in their own circles, ala Ptolemy.

In response, a pagan objects:

PAGAN: I tell you, the gods should have consulted me before they created anything… It all seems too whimsical. Why the joint effect of two circles? Wouldn’t it be more perfect if.. a single circle gave sense to everything?

CHRISTIAN: By what authority do you judge the work of God? [i.e. "Who are you to judge God?"]

PAGAN: What is wrong with you Christians? Can a man no longer open his mouth in this city?

CHRISTIAN: You criticize Creation, you criticize our Lord. You offend us.

PAGAN: You should move out to the desert; you won’t hear anything to offend you out there.

Later, the Christians start insulting the pagan gods, so the pagans gather and plan to attack them with swords. Hypatia protests, saying that insults are not worth bloodshed, but the attack goes forward, and hundreds of people are slaughtered in the streets of Alexandria. It’s a paradigm case of pointless religious warfare over whose imaginary friend has a bigger cock.

Back to science. Hypatia agrees with her student who earlier complained that Ptolemy’s model was too complicated. Perhaps Aristarchus was right (700 years earlier) that the earth goes around the sun, along with all the other planets. “That would make us just another wanderer,” Hypatia observes. But another student provides the evidence against Aristarchus’ theory:

STUDENT: If the Earth is moving, every time you drop an object it would fall further behind, and the wind would always blow against us, and the birds would lose their way in flight.

HYPATIA: I feel that what you’ve said can be refuted, but right now I don’t know how.

So, yeah. Agora will appeal to anyone who, like me, is enchanted by the slow and careful progress of science over many centuries.

Meanwhile, the local Roman governor declares that the pagans will be pardoned for inciting violent against the Christians, but in return they must give up their library – the greatest treasure of human knowledge in the world at that time – to the Christians.

The pagans hurriedly try to save the most important works in the library, but the Christians storm the library and pile up centuries of scientific work – scroll by scroll by scroll. Then the Christians burn it all. It is a scene that will make fans of history and scientific progress weep.

Later, Hypatia drops a heavy sack from the mast of a moving ship and sees that it stays with the ship, instead of “falling behind.” This makes her think that Aristarchus was right that Earth goes around the Sun. But now she cannot explain why the Sun gets brighter and dimmer throughout the year, for this would mean the Sun is not at the exact center of the Earth’s orbit, and for Hypatia, “not to have a center breaks my heart.”

Next, the Jews of Alexandria massacre some Christians, so the Christians turn around the next day and slaughter the Jews. Once again, Hypatia watches in horror.

But soon, she has a revelation:

HYPATIA: Ever since Plato, all of them – Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Ptolemy – they have all, all, all tried to reconcile their observations with circular orbits. But what if another shape is hiding in the heavens?

DAVUS: Another shape? Lady, there is no shape more pure than the circle; you taught us that.

HYPATIA: I know, I know, but suppose – just suppose! – the purity of the circle has blinded us from seeing anything beyond it! I must begin all over with new eyes. I must rethink everything! …What if we dared to look at the world just as it is. Let us shed for a moment every preconceived idea – what shape would it show us?

agora3And then it hits her. She takes off the top part of a wooden cone and realizes: the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse. An ellipse! That explains everything!

Meanwhile, though, a Christian leader reads from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

I desire women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds… Let a woman learn in quietness and in full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

The Christian Roman prefect refuses to submit to the sermon against Hypatia, and a Christian mob stones him amidst his guards. Hypatia can no longer walk the streets for fear of being killed.

Synesius, a sympathetic Christian leader, comes to her, announcing that all public figures, including Hypatia, must be baptised and made Christian.

SYNESIUS: Lady… we are all good people. And you are as Christian as we are.

Having just solved the riddle of the solar system by questioning her beliefs and those of scientific authorities like Plato, Aristarchus, and Ptolemy, Hypatia replies:

HYPATIA: Synesius, you don’t question what you believe. You cannot. I must.

SYNESIUS: Well. That is a pity, lady. A great pity.

Before she can publish her earth-shattering discovery, the Christians take Hypatia, strip her naked, and kill her.

The discovery of Earth’s elliptical orbit would have to wait another thousand years.

Agora is gorgeous to watch, with huge sets and very little CGI. One of the most impressive shots zooms in slowly from outer space all the way into the city of Alexandria. Another passes by the beautiful blue Earth during the tortured screams of the latest religious bloodshed.

Agora is so thoroughly anti-religious it will probably never open in the United States, despite being a big-budget historical drama filmed entirely in English. (But, it has leaked to the interwebs…)

I have never seen a more anti-religious, pro-science film than Agora.

Hoo-rah.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Justfinethanks February 10, 2010 at 7:09 pm

(Prediction: Richard Carrier will love this film.)

I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but you just pulled a Book of Daniel style postdiction. He commented on this movie back in June, and commented on some possible Historical problems.

Historical worries aside (I haven’t seen it yet, so some or all of my concerns may be unfounded), this could still be well worth seeing, as idealistic fiction if not history. I’ll be eager to see it either way, and I’ll report more fully when I do.

http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2009/06/weisz-is-hypatia.html

How exactly did you get to see it?

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ayer February 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm

“The pagans hurriedly try to save the most important works in the library, but the Christians storm the library and pile up centuries of scientific work – scroll by scroll by scroll. Then the Christians burn it all. It is a scene that will make fans of history and scientific progress weep.”

It is also a scene that should make anyone concerned with historical truth weep, because it is factually inaccurate:

“As to the famous burning of the Alexandrian Library by supposedly superstitious and bigoted Christian mobs in A.D. 390, Hart destroys this myth with an alacrity that enlightens as well as educates us about the intricacies of the early Christian age. It is little known that the Library had in fact been burned down many centuries earlier, most probably – and inadvertently—by Julius Caesar’s legions, during the dictator’s war against Pompey in the year 48 B.C. This is a stunning revelation, as Caesar died in 44 B.C., a good forty years or so before Christ had even been born (and almost a good century before the creation of the Church). So how did this myth take hold? The answer lies in the internecine conflicts that took place between Greeks and Jews, and later between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, quite possibly the most cosmopolitan and most violent city in the Roman Empire…Regardless, the myth of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by intolerant Christian mobs arose out of the ashes of this great catastrophe.” http://orthocath.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/book-review-atheist-delusions-by-david-bentley-hart/

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Bryce February 10, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Were there any Christians who acted like Christians say they are supposed to?

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 7:23 pm

ayer,

Yes, Agora takes great liberties with history, as do all historical epics.

Bryce,

Yeah, some Christians gave some beggars some bread. And then they killed a bunch of Jews.

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Aeiluindae February 10, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Sounds interesting. Definitely want to see it, regardless of its historical accuracy. All too much of the behaviour is typical of humans. Humans in general, not just religious humans, but we seem to have more issues keeping cool heads. Passionate people can do amazing things, but also terrible and stupid things.

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Jake de Backer February 11, 2010 at 12:35 am

ayer: “The pagans hurriedly try to save the most important works in the library, but the Christians storm the library and pile up centuries of scientific work – scroll by scroll by scroll. Then the Christians burn it all. It is a scene that will make fans of history and scientific progress weep.”It is also a scene that should make anyone concerned with historical truth weep, because it is factually inaccurate:“As to the famous burning of the Alexandrian Library by supposedly superstitious and bigoted Christian mobs in A.D. 390, Hart destroys this myth with an alacrity that enlightens as well as educates us about the intricacies of the early Christian age. It is little known that the Library had in fact been burned down many centuries earlier, most probably – and inadvertently—by Julius Caesar’s legions, during the dictator’s war against Pompey in the year 48 B.C. This is a stunning revelation, as Caesar died in 44 B.C., a good forty years or so before Christ had even been born (and almost a good century before the creation of the Church). So how did this myth take hold? The answer lies in the internecine conflicts that took place between Greeks and Jews, and later between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, quite possibly the most cosmopolitan and most violent city in the Roman Empire…Regardless, the myth of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by intolerant Christian mobs arose out of the ashes of this great catastrophe.” http://orthocath.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/book-review-atheist-delusions-by-david-bentley-hart/  

Well, if one quite conspicuously partial Christian historian says so, it must, then, be the case. Good to know we can finally lay this “myth” to rest. Thanks, Ayer.

I would venture a third inquiry into the origin of your name but I’m confident my answer will be the same as the previous two. Which is to say, none at all.

Fucking Pagans,
J.

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ildi February 11, 2010 at 4:26 am

According to Preston Chesser of Ohio State University:

Caesar wrote of starting the fire in the harbor but neglected to mention the burning of the Library. Such an omission proves little since he was not in the habit of including unflattering facts while writing his own history. But Caesar was not without public detractors. If he was solely to blame for the disappearance of the Library it is very likely significant documentation on the affair would exist today.

and

So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library’s holdings.

Sadly, I have to agree with his summary:

The real tragedy of course is not the uncertainty of knowing who to blame for the Library’s destruction but that so much of ancient history, literature and learning was lost forever.

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Bryan February 11, 2010 at 6:22 am

Sounds like a facinating movie – I will be adding it to my watch list ASAP!

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Rich February 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm

ayer: “The pagans hurriedly try to save the most important works in the library, but the Christians storm the library and pile up centuries of scientific work – scroll by scroll by scroll. Then the Christians burn it all. It is a scene that will make fans of history and scientific progress weep.”It is also a scene that should make anyone concerned with historical truth weep, because it is factually inaccurate:“As to the famous burning of the Alexandrian Library by supposedly superstitious and bigoted Christian mobs in A.D. 390, Hart destroys this myth with an alacrity that enlightens as well as educates us about the intricacies of the early Christian age. It is little known that the Library had in fact been burned down many centuries earlier, most probably – and inadvertently—by Julius Caesar’s legions, during the dictator’s war against Pompey in the year 48 B.C. This is a stunning revelation, as Caesar died in 44 B.C., a good forty years or so before Christ had even been born (and almost a good century before the creation of the Church). So how did this myth take hold? The answer lies in the internecine conflicts that took place between Greeks and Jews, and later between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, quite possibly the most cosmopolitan and most violent city in the Roman Empire…Regardless, the myth of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by intolerant Christian mobs arose out of the ashes of this great catastrophe.” http://orthocath.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/book-review-atheist-delusions-by-david-bentley-hart/  (Quote)

http://www.fact-index.com/l/li/library_of_alexandria.html

“As noted above, it is generally accepted that the Museum of Alexandria existed until ca. 400 CE, and if the Museum and the Library are considered to be largely identical or attached to one another, earlier accounts of destruction could only concern a small number of books stored elsewhere. This is consistent with the number given by Seneca, much smaller than the overall volume of books in the Library. So under this interpretation it is plausible that, for example, books stored in a warehouse near the harbor were accidentally destroyed by Caesar, and that larger numbers cited in some works have to be considered unreliable — misinterpretations by the medieval monks who preserved these works through the Middle Ages, or deliberate forgeries.”

Nice try.

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drj February 11, 2010 at 8:39 pm

(Prediction: Richard Carrier will love this film.)

I first heard of this film through his blog actually. And yes, I imagine he will enjoy it, because he seems to have a thing for Rachel Weisz (don’t blame him).

He also talks about his misgivings for the potential historical misrepresentations surrounding the library and Hypatia’s death, and sets the record straight preemptively.

http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2009/06/weisz-is-hypatia.html

It also sounds like the film has her “trapped in the legendary Library of Alexandria” in the midst of Christian riots in the end, which suggests she is burned with the library, when in fact those riots burned the library’s annex, the Serapeum. A great loss to the ancient written record to be sure (tens of thousands of books were destroyed), nevertheless the Great Library itself was far larger (hundreds of thousands of books) and probably survived this occasion (in any case, it would have been situated on the other side of the city). I worry the film might perpetuate this slight error, confusing one library for the other.

http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2009/06/weisz-is-hypatia.html

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe March 22, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Your praises for this movie were so high that they compelled me to give it a watch and I found there is some value in it — the story of ppl who use religion as an excuse to crush their ‘opponents’, a point displayed very well in the events that led to Hypatia’s death.

However, the movie really looks like some standard made-for-tv fare and got 2 very dissatisfying performances by the lead characters, Hypatia and her servant lover. These may be mere aesthetic issues, but even the message is not delivered powerfully enough to have you praise it so much, nor is it that powerful at all (though a superior director would probably have done far better to conceal the story’s lack of punch).

Luke, are you sure you are not merely blinded/biased by your love for the subject matter? I’ve casually noticed awards and recognition given to a movie more for the importance of their message than for it’s overall quality and am not comfortable with that, so am here hoping you are not doing the same here, and if you do, maybe clarify a bit. Sorry, I just didn’t find the entire thing challenging and enthralling at all, at least not as much as your posts :-)

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lukeprog March 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Tshepang,

I just read through my post again and I didn’t say anywhere that it was a good piece of filmmaking, or had good acting, or had a good screenplay. I was specific in my praise.

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe March 23, 2010 at 1:18 am

“Super-Atheist Gorgeous Epic” sounds like praising the entire thing though. I think it would be more fair, at least as a sidenote, to state your feelings about other elements of the movie, else people may come back disappointed, like I was — I thought it was some sorta masterpiece, at least in your eyes. Is it?

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lukeprog March 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

Tshepang,

Goodness, no. Not really even a ‘good’ film. But it remains a super-atheist gorgeous-looking epic film.

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe March 24, 2010 at 1:07 am

A glad you clarified that and am even tempted to call it bad :)

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Olia July 3, 2010 at 8:44 am

The slave is not Hypatia’s lover, as one comment says -I think the one who made the comment missed the point of the whole virginity stuff (the only pass to be taken for a “honorary man”, all passion for science etc.).
By the way, Amenábar makes it CLEAR in the film that what is destroyed is NOT the big library of Alexandria (that had been destroyed before), but a “daughter” library, in the Serapeum.This second destruction of a smaller library during Hypatia’s life is a HISTORICAL FACT.
Good review, btw.

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lukeprog July 3, 2010 at 10:24 am

Olia,

Ah, thanks for the clarification.

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Hsing Lee October 26, 2010 at 8:11 pm

This was a great movie, but I really have to take issue with the way they watered down and sterilized the ending to make Christians look far less evil and hateful than they really are, instead of showing the world the true face of the Christian mob in the 4th century.

This woman was hacked to bits, one scoopful of skin and flesh at a time, by Christians, using pottery or oyster shells.

To vindicate Christians of this is like spitting in the face of Hypatia, Galileo, and all the other great teachers who Christian ignorance has murdered, defiled, and stomped on for 1600 years.

They should have used this opportunity to show the world the true face of Christianity.

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ceti February 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm

There are very few films about the late Roman Empire, particularly with the emerging hegemony of Roman Christianity and the darkening of ancient antiquity’s era of scientific inquiry.

Agora excels in depicting the era gorgeously. Orestes and Hypatia come across as very pragmatic and likeable characters as they were in reality. The internal conflicts of Hypatia’s pupils are also very compelling.

Beyond this, this is a very moving film.

Also, praise be to Kepler, another scientist who was persecuted in his time.

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dave July 11, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Nobody has mentioned that the film claims Hypatia was led to the idea that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical by trying to explain the apparent changes in the sun’s motion through the sky over the course of a year, but this has nothing to do with ellipticity. It is the tilt of the Earth’s axis that causes this. In fact, Earth’s orbit has a very tiny eccentricity. It is almost perfectly circular.

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nana1 December 24, 2011 at 9:41 am

there is no intention to show Agora’s science work,but to falsificate history.it is well known that christian comunity was not involved in such crimes.that devolves seriosity of this film.

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Yusuf Salih January 6, 2012 at 10:35 am

I absolutely loved this film and my eyes welled up at this atrocity of religious zealots aim to control people no matter what. If you don’t have proof of something you cannot make it law. And if we have law we don’t need religion, especially in the streets.

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