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Life by Design


Clash of Religions at the Agora

Posted by Carren |

Last September 11 to 13, I got the chance to attend my first international film festival. While expectations can equal reality, it was still a great experience. I got to roam the streets of Toronto for just a little bit, and I got to see some upcoming releases. I'll be writing a few of my impressions here, let me know what you think when you see the movie released. I'll be happy to trade notes.

History at its best tells the story of both the past and the present. In Agora, director and co-writer Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar is able to do both.

Aptly titled after the Greek word meaning “gathering place,” Agora recounts the clash between the Pagan, Christian, and Jewish religions in the 4th century city of Alexandria, eventually leading to the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. The story centers on Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), an extraordinary female philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer whose love for knowledge far exceeds her interests in romance.

By following her journey, audiences gradually become aware of the turmoil roiling beneath society’s surface as the newly legalized Christian religion bubbles up and explodes over a predominantly pagan culture. Later on, conflict bursts again as the primitive but now-predominant Christian faction attempts to inflict moral ascendancy on their Jewish brothers.

Writers Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar and Mateo Gil expertly tackle this tragic macro theme by weaving in the love triangle between Hypatia; her student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac); and her slave, Davus (Max Minghella). While this romantic plotline never fully comes to head, it’s a device that mimics the tension between the different religious factions especially as the story progresses. Orestes becomes the Prefect of Alexandria, the highest official in the city, and Davus becomes a member of the Parabolani, an extremist brotherhood forcing moral conformity with Christian values.

What by far was the most lyrical aspect of the movie is Hypatia’s lifelong search for the answers to the secrets of the cosmos. Greek scholars have always upheld Ptolemy’s geocentric theory, placing the Earth in the middle of the system with other planets orbiting in a circle, the perfect (therefore only fitting) shape.

In her search for answers, Hypatia has to do away with her long-held assumptions. At one point, she paces her study room telling herself (and perhaps even audiences who are listening), “What if we see the world just as it is?” Hypatia’s academic cool-headedness juxtaposed with the ongoing mindless religious fervor surrounding her takes on a deepened significance, a subtle suggestion on what it takes for people of differing beliefs to peacefully co-exist.

Though Agora won’t send your heart plummeting or soaring, it will set your mind racing. By masterful allegory both on the micro and macro, it questions what beliefs we have and asks how far each of us will go to uphold it. This question, which tore apart a great city, is as relevant now as it was 1,600 years ago.


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