Maybe it’s just because I feel compelled always to bow to my secular god of knowledge for knowledge sake, but the story of the great library of Alexandria – which housed the original theory of evolution, writings on particle physics, the mechanics of teleportation, and the fourth season of “Arrested Development” – and how it was burnt to the ground by book-burning Nazis.. er, I mean, well-meaning Christians, is an interesting story to me. Of course, the story loses some of its charm if you believe that Julius Caesar actually burned the library down on accident. Still, it has all the makings of a superb – and largely intangible – tragedy. It’s one thing to see a great building brought to rubble, but it’s quite another to know that the demolition set the entire world back by ages.
But Agora is not simply about this. It’s also about the philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), of whom little is known, giving the filmmakers a lot of creative license. Hypatia makes claims that we are all brothers here on this planet Earth and therefore should respect and work with one another, but the film seems more interested in demonizing Christianity. The one-dimensionality of those opposing Hypatia and her pagans is distressing. That, combined with the dry politics, kept me thinking of Atlas Shrugged: Part I (2011), which is similarly dry and compromised by its insistence on casting those who do not follow Ayn Rand’s vision of the world as evil. This, in turn, reminds me of the Christian movies that I love to watch: ones where those who do not follow the Bible’s words to the letter are condemned to Hell, where the only explanation for atheism is a heated rage at God and the world. It’s a vicious circle.
The Christians in Agora wear black and throw innocents into blazing fires. They lay siege to the library, destroying relics and thoughtlessly murdering anybody who stands in their way. Where the pagans have a discussion to decide how to address the rise of Christianity in their city, the Christians swarm the streets in a formless, angry mob. Brothers turn on brothers without a second thought, stones hurled at skulls for not believing things in the same way that we do. Their goal is ostensibly to eradicate paganism, those religious folk who do not believe in the Abrahamic god, but soon it becomes clear that they will not stop there – the brutes quickly turn their eyes toward the Jews and then to scientific exploration itself. It’s hard to believe that the Vatican had any part in the creation of this film (the Vatican reportedly assisted in some of the religious depictions), because the Christians are painted as blanket bad guys, and the few who do have misgivings about the continuing slaughter yet remain true to their faith are not given enough time to develop into rounded characters with potent reasons for their beliefs – their time is instead spent furtively meeting with Hypatia and glaring at the leader of the Christian revolution, Cyril.
Meanwhile, between frenzied, uninteresting scenes of battle between the pagans and Christians, our gal Hypatia is thinking about the movement of the celestial bodies. The Ptolemaic system of the universe, wherein all of the planets and stars move in circles around the Earth, has been easily cut down by one of the students in her philosophy class, and so Hypatia spends the bulk of the movie trying to make a heliocentric design for the solar system work in her mind. She is sometimes oblivious to the fighting going on around her due to the fact that all of her energy is being put toward solving this major riddle of the universe. The movie, unfortunately, does no better at handling this than it does at impartially demonstrating the rift between the Christians and, um, everyone else. It’s a heady concept which I suppose would be difficult to convey on-screen, but Hypatia’s process seems limited to staring up at the stars multiple times and then shouting, “Eureka!” Not literally, mind you, but the meaning is the same. It comes to her suddenly. Just as the rise of Christianity comes on suddenly. Just as the Christian leadership taking control over Alexandria comes on suddenly. There’s little room for subtlety or growth for any of the characters.
Not to say that the movie does not work at all. The fundamentalist Christians, rabid with religious fervor, are frightening – as faceless bad guys tend to be. Their endless pursuit of power and destruction can only spell disaster for Hypatia and those who remain loyal to her; we’re just waiting for the inevitable. That certainly provides some tension, and an invented love triangle between our heroine, her slave Davus, and her student Orestes (who later holds a leadership role in the Christian government) makes sure that there is an added dramatic undercurrent flowing throughout the film. Davus, for instance, is a man who is always being questioned about his beliefs about the workings of the world and keenly shrug them off by saying, “Only God knows.” He’s difficult to read throughout the film: we cannot be sure if he is a Christian or not, his actions and loyalties seem to change with his mood. Without his presence in the movie, a lot of the drama would be lost. We’d be limited primarily to the droll philosophy-science of Hypatia and the usually bland terrorism of the Christians (mostly people running around aimlessly, screaming and/or slashing at the air with swords).
So returning to the Atlas Shrugged comparison, a lot of the reason that Rand’s book was shelved for so long when it came to the film version, despite the novel’s popularity, is that it’s a dense work that is very difficult to transfer to the screen. There’s a 50-page speech, for cryin’ out loud, how do you put that into a movie without tearing it to pieces? Similarly, although these stories about the library of Alexandria, about Hypatia, and about the discovery of the true rotation of the planets – all of these are certainly interesting and amazing stories – they remain difficult to bring to the screen. I suppose that Agora did what it could, although the it really should have demonized Christianity in a more rounded way and definitely have spent more time on choreographing battle sequences instead of just spreading people around randomly. But aside from showing Hypatia doing a lot more math, I don’t know how anything could really have been added to the refinement of the heliocentric model of planetary rotation. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s kind of amazing that that was a major plot point in the movie at all.
Agora has some interesting ideas, certainly, but where one might imagine that it would wind up being too complex, perhaps in an attempt to defuse those worries, the film instead became much, much too shallow.