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.
The 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?
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?
And 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.
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