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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Agora: The Great Atheist Film?

Alejandro Amenabar’s excellent Agora opened this past week in limited release and I can’t help but wonder why a film that resembles Gladiator (except smarter and more entertaining) is being dumped by its distributor at the end of May rather than given a wide-release on thousands of screens.

I thought the only reason this could be so is if the film was horrifyingly awful, but it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year. So the only explanation for why a film that has an epic-scope but is being released as if it had an indie-focus is because of its about religion versus science.

The film is about astronomer/philosopher Hypatia (played perfectly by Rachel Weisz), a woman who was seen as an intellectual equal amongst the men in Alexandria in 391 A.D. She teaches a class at the Library of Alexandria about her theories on whether or not the sun revolves around the Earth or vice versa. In her class is the young, charming Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who is after her heart. At home is her smart and loyal slave Davus (Max Minghella) who has loved her for a long time. Outside the walls of the library, however, there is a war shaping up between the pagans and the Christians. The pagans have been in power for a long time, but the Christians are growing in numbers and are growing more violent by the day.

I’ll stop with the plot description now. The truth of the matter is that this is not a film about Christianity being inherently evil, per se. It’s about the mob mentality that can erupt when there is a combination of 1) lack of education, 2) poverty and 3) an influx of any religion. The movie illustrates how easy it is for the weak-willed to fall prey to fundamentalism and extremism (starting to sound familiar?). It’s not that religion is evil, it’s that it can be used as a tool for intolerance. This is illustrated best by the scene in Agora when the Christians ransack the library, destroying books and information. For what purpose? Because it is of no use for them to read books when they have the only book that matters.

I was especially struck by a scene in which Cyril (Sami Samir), the pope-like figure in Alexandria, asks Orestes to kneel before the bible that Cyril holds. When Orestes doesn’t kneel, the crowd turns on him, despite the fact that Orestes is a Christian. The reason he doesn’t kneel before the book that he believes in? Cyril has just called Hypatia a witch. For Orestes to kneel before the book in that moment wouldn’t just show that Orestes has faith in the bible, it would also show that Orestes agrees with everything else that Cyril has said.

This is a magnificent example of how religion can be twisted and poisoned depending on the person teaching and interpreting it. The logic becomes faulty if you believe every word out of the mouth of a sermonizer. When Orestes is escorted out of the crowd, he screams over and over again “I’m as Christian as you are” while stones are being hurled at him. Does this mean he is or isn’t a Christian? Is it Christian to stone someone who doesn’t believe the same way you do? Should any religion tolerate such a thing if we believe the words of their holy books?

Questions like these arise while watching Agora, but that is not to say that the film is just a polemic about why religion is evil. This wasn’t made by Christopher Hitchens (although I’d love to see that film). I think the target in Amenabar’s film isn’t really religion at all, it’s intolerance. D.W. Griffith may have used the title first, but it would be an apt one for this film as well. The character of Hypatia is not so much an atheist as she just doesn’t have an interest in religion. She is more fascinated by science. At one point a character says that she believes in “nothing” and she replies, “I believe in philosophy.” This scene illustrates perfectly the misconception about atheism, that if one doesn’t believe in god then one doesn’t believe in anything. Later on in the film, she tells someone, “you don’t question what you believe. I must.” That’s essentially the rallying cry of every agnostic in the world.

But look, this is not just a “smart” film about people in large rooms discussing religion (although there are a few scenes where that does happen). Rather, this is a film with epic scenes of battle and bloodshed. It might not have Russell Crowe fighting a tiger in an arena, but there are some pretty monumentally cool scenes here. It’s just that while other sword-and-sandal flicks might revel in the destruction in order to get the audience to say “oh cool, he just stabbed that guy,” this is a film that doesn’t glorify battle.

When it becomes apparent that the pagans will have to fight the Christians, Hypatia protects her students, saving them from the horrors they surely would have faced. And as audience, we are thinking, “thank goodness.” In any other film that is set in this era and deals with these circumstances, we would have been focusing more on those that did fight and what heroes they were. In Agora, the heroes are the ones who don’t react violently.

It’s not a perfect film. The love stories are not essential to the film, although it helps to deepen Hypatia as a character. She is someone who eschews the love of men. In fact, at one point she hands one of her suitors a cloth with her menstrual blood on it. She cannot understand how there could be any beauty in love since there is no beauty in her menstrual cycle. But the love story also is used to introduce us to the character of Davus who becomes radicalized when he becomes a Christian. He is used as a way of showing the audience how these things happen; he’s a slave, but he has more than so many others and he can help people by giving them the bread he has (although never mind that the bread isn’t his to give).

Rachel Weisz is truly astounding in this film, as she often is. Hypatia is not an easy character to play; she must be idealistic yet intelligent, a dreamer but a realist. Weisz is such a wonderful presence, so charismatic and likable that although her character is not as fleshed-out as she could be, she is still imbued with a certain vigor and humanism. The film doesn’t portray her as martyr, though, which makes sense because atheists don’t believe in martyrs anyway. Rather, they show the hypocrisy inherent in her secular humanism: she might be nice to her slaves, but she still has slaves. Hypatia is a good person overall, but she’s also a slave-owner.

The acting by the rest of the cast is all pretty spot-on, with Oscar Isaacs proving to be quite a commanding presence.


The final scene between he and Weisz is heartbreaking: Orestes is trying to figure out a way to beat Cyril, who has taken over the city. It is decided that everyone must be baptized, including Orestes’ closest advisor Hypatia. Hypatia refuses to do this and Orestes tells her that if she would just do it, then they could figure out a way to defeat Cyril, to which she replies, “Oh, Orestes. He’s already won.” Wow. Just wow. This scene is the most note-perfect illustration of why we cannot give in to religious intolerance and fundamentalism. But, truly, watch Weisz and Isaacs in this scene and how they make us feel what they are going through. Terrific work.


I’ve always liked Alejandro Amenabar, but I never thought he had something like this in him. I thought Open Your Eyes and The Others were very good films with a lot of interesting ideas, but I didn’t find either one to be mind-blowing. And The Sea Inside was, I felt, a decent picture with a fantastic lead performance that covered up a lot of it’s flaws. But having seen Agora puts his career into a whole new perspective for me. Speaking of perspective, one of the most interesting things that Amenabar does is he pulls back – way back – every once in a while, from the action that we are seeing until we are in space staring at the Earth. It’s in these moments that we see just how small the problems in this film really are. They’re waging a war over different gods, which seems really silly when you take a step back and look at the big picture of the universe.

I was blown away by what I saw in Agora. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s on that next level. Unlike so many “epic” pictures, this is one that doesn’t pander to a wide audience. Unfortunately, it’s going to suffer at the box office for that very reason. But I urge you, all of you, who enjoy seeing entertaining movies that give you a little nugget of wisdom, to please seek out Agora when it comes to a theater near you. At the very least, check it out on DVD. It’s one of the better films you’ll see this year.

Dennis Hopper, RIP

About a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a SAG Q&A with Dennis Hopper after a screening of Elegy. To be able to meet the man who played Frank Booth was a dream come true for me. I asked him a bunch of questions about the film he was promoting and then a bunch about Blue Velvet (one of my favorite films and one of my favorite performances ever). He was smart, funny and unbelievably nice. We didn’t chitchat a lot before or after the Q&A. He arrived in a car, we did our Q&A and then I moderated as the audience asked him questions about acting, then he hopped in the back of the car and was driven away.

He was taller than I expected. He appears much shorter in his films. Between Easy Rider andBlue Velvet, he has given us so much material to study. What he accomplishes in those films is something unique, which is rare to say in this business. In the latter film, he is both terrifying and hilarious, often in the same scene…hell, often in the same sentence. I wanted to laugh, even as I was cowering behind my couch. For the guy who gave me that feeling – something I’ve never felt again – I’ll always be thankful. He was terrific in Hoosiers, Apocalypse Now, Speed, True Romance, etc. But nothing compares to Blue Velvet.

I remember reading once – and who knows if it’s true – that Dennis Hopper told David Lynchthat he had to play Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. When Lynch asked him why that was, Hopper apparently said, “Because I am Frank Booth.”

Rest in peace Frank.

Noah Forrest
May 31, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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One Response to “Agora: The Great Atheist Film?”

  1. erwin says:

    enjoyed your article a lot. I was deeply affected by the film and want to learn more about it.
    so, did you find out the facts concerning why it didnt get wider distribution???
    Id love to know
    thank you

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon