Agora: A new film in defense of reason

A serious, intelligent film that stands up for science and freedom of thought and against the forces of mysticism and ignorance? And it's now in theaters? Believe it!

Agora is a new Spanish film, now in limited release in New York City and the Los Angeles area. At first glance, it might be mistaken for the sort of toga-and-sandals B-picture that was popular decades ago. But it’s much more than that. This is one ambitious and cerebral flick!

The setting of Agora is Fourth-Century Egypt under the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Hypatia, a real-life philosopher, against a background of clashes among Romans, Christians, and Jews.

Though the film is based on actual events, some occurrences, and details of Hypatia’s life, differ from historical accounts. But this all happened a while ago, and chronicles of the period are fragmented, incomplete, and contradictory. So a bit of dramatic license is forgivable.

Far more intriguing than the spectacular bloody battles with the requisite “cast of thousands” are the quieter scenes involving discussions of philosophy, logic, science, astronomy, mathematics. Of course, in those days, before the disciplines became specialized and separate, pretty much everything fell under the rubric of philosophy.

The major theme of this engrossing epic is the conflict between reason and science on the one hand, and religion and superstition on the other. You won’t find that in most Hollywood blockbusters at the multiplex!

A secondary theme concerns knowledge, and the importance of its recording, preservation, and transmission. Hence one of the primary locales: the great library at Alexandria.

The plot is strong and holds your attention almost consistently. Admirers of the work of Ayn Rand will especially appreciate the heroism and courage displayed by several key characters.

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a brilliant scholar and teacher who is in charge of the library, engages in lively intellectual debates with her students and colleagues in an attempt to decipher the mysteries of planetary motion. This portrayal of an independent and ferociously intelligent woman in an age of rabid misogyny and religious fanaticism struck me as possibly anachronistic. But then, I wasn’t there. Feminist elements are certainly evident in Weisz’s fine performance. More than a millennium afterward, some of Hypatia’s insights and conclusions were confirmed by Kepler and Newton.

But Hypatia’s secular, rational investigations of reality don’t sit well with the priests and other religionists who favor divine revelation. She faces denunciation and persecution, and only a few loyal supporters rally to her side.

The film is nothing if not evenhanded: The early Christians are portrayed both as innocent victims of Roman brutality — and as yahoos who storm the library and savagely destroy books containing centuries of knowledge and wisdom. (The books, in the form of parchment scrolls, are neatly stored on row after row of shelves in a manner that would please an organizer from The Container Store.) In the chaos that ensues, Hypatia and friends struggle frantically to save what they can.

Lest this review include the dreaded “spoilers,” I will say no more about the story.

Those who dislike subtitled foreign films will be grateful that all the dialogue is in English — and modern, colloquial, English-accented English at that. I suspect that this was a commercial decision. The film’s appeal would have been limited had it been in subtitled Spanish, much less in Latin and Aramaic. Only Mel Gibson was able to pull off that sort of stunt.

The script is intelligent and literate, and the production values, performances, direction, and cinematography are all top-notch. My only reservation is that the screenplay might have been streamlined and trimmed somewhat. Certain scenes struck me as slow, maudlin, or confusing. But overall, this is a remarkable film that’s well worth seeing.

Here in Manhattan, Agora recently opened at the Sunshine on the Lower East Side and the Paris, next to the Plaza Hotel. (The Paris, a venerable single-screen cinema, is one of New York’s little treasures.) But it just closed at the latter house, following a limited two-week run. It’s also playing now on a few screens in Southern California. I have no information about the producers’ plans for a national rollout, but they surely need to recoup all the money that’s evident on the screen. Check the usual Internet sources and your local listings. Trailers and background material are at the official site.

A footnote: When I saw the announcement for the film, I thought immediately of Agora, the publisher and direct marketer that was one of my earliest clients. Today, 35 years later, I’m still working with the company.

The word agora is Greek for “gathering place” or “marketplace,” and my initial reaction was that a film with that title could be about almost anything. Discovering that it contains themes to warm the hearts of Objectivists — and others who share its admirable values — came as a welcome surprise.

Indeed, it’s rare to find a film that deals seriously with complex and challenging philosophical ideas. And few ideas are more important than freedom, free inquiry, the passion for truth, and the historical clash between rationality and mysticism — a conflict that still rages today. It might be difficult to find in theaters in your area, but even if you have to wait for the DVD, don’t miss Agora.

UPDATE: The movie is now available on DVD.

Don Hauptman is a New York City-based advertising copywriter and humorist, and a longtime Objectivist. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows creative types how to diversify into public speaking, consulting, training, and other profitable activities.

16 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
I agree with Don Hauptman completely. I subsiquently now own the DVD and a poster of Agora after seeing it at the Sunshine in NYC. Several wonderful Agora posters can be found at on-line.

As a corollary to this tragic film about the destruction to the library of Alexandria, I'd also like to see an equally uplifting film about the Renaissance. An entertaining, accurate and concise portrayal of the revival of the lost wisdom from the ancient world would be an extremely worthwhile project. Pointing out while also bridging the intellectual and moral gap of the dark ages would help shed more light on the true value of reason and give great joy and hope to those who champion and seek it.
I was surprised by Agora, being attracted to left-libertarianism, I had to watch it when it had such a title. I found your review very good, although I didn't really notice any problems with any scenes that I can specifically recall. I think this is a great film for highlighting the moral problem with westerners embracing Christ-insanity. I hope it encourages many more to investigate our real roots and to understand what the first principles, the core of western civilization is really all about.
Fantastic! The Agora trailer I recently saw in the theater really caught my attention along with Rachel Weisz. The NYC Sunshine Cinema isn't far from my location, so I'm going tonight. I wonder if ancient greek scholar Victor Davis Hanson will like Agora.

Thanks Don.
I look forward to seeing this movie about a fascinating figure. I first learned of Hypatia in the Carl Sagan television series. Feminists would do well to recognize her as an historically significant figure, but I'm sure they will ignore her as they have Ayn Rand all these years.

An early release to DVD would certainly be something for those in the hinterland.

Thank you for the review and the announcement. I value "The Atlasphere".
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Exciting news! Hypatia has been a hero of mine since first I heard of her.

I would be honored to die as she died! HaHa!

I can't wait for it to come to the Miami area.
As always, Don Hauptman is a favorite writer of mine. Based on my many years of knowing him, I trust his judgment about books, movies, art, etc. Based on this review, I'm going to rent, borrow, or buy the movie. Thanks for publishing his work.
Mr. Hauptman -

Excellent review of a rare movie genre - an epic and historic adventure/thriller/documentary for the thinking person! Perhaps this will become the typecast for a new breed of summer blockbuster. We should be so lucky.

Besides a great review of the movie itself, I appreciated the background and personal information laced with your trademark subtle humor.

It may be a while before it reaches flyover country, but I'll be looking for "Agora" at Robert Redford's Sundance Cinema in Madison, Wisconsin, in the near future.
That sounds wonderful and, given what little I do know about Hypatia, I think a little bit of modern feminism may be forgivable to fill in the gaps in data as to her own approach - which was itself certainly a kind of feminism.
Emotionalism rather than logic appearing to be the guiding darkness of the current day "enLIEtenment", this is something I will investigate with great hope:

In my younger days, Atheism was defined as "a philosophical disposition toward science and empirical, reasonable evidence with a distinct distrust of all things supernatural."

In modern times, with Papal Earth-bitch ("Mary") worship re-disguised as "science" by the global warming fanatics and Gore zealots, ANY attempt to steer the philosophical ship back toward reason and away from religion is welcomed!
I agree the movie was slow in places, but it is a brilliant piece of cinematic work and Rachel Weisz is great as Hypatia. It's so sad that so much has been lost to time and the ravages of religion. Some things should be held sacred, like knowledge.
I found the DVD in our little town's video rental store. Yes, slow in spots but wonderfully done overall.

You share the growing excitement as Hypatia and her colleagues dawning realization of the relevance of the study of conic sections to astronomy - overcoming their own quasi-superstitious regard of the circle as the "perfect shape."
Thanks for the great review. I finally got to see it today and absolutely loved it. So much care went into every single detail.

I am grateful to Alejandro Amenabar for telling Hypatia's story. He did a great job presenting it in a manner that any thoughtful person can appreciate. It is about time that she receives the acknowledgement she deserves for the exceptional person she was.

I have entered this film onto my all time favorites list. I highly recommend it.
I've seen it three times now. Each time with different friends. Each time I kept quiet to hear what they thought. They didn't get it. Not one of them. They just didn't get it.
A wonderful film from the growing number of Spanish filmakers interested in these challenging topics.

It's on NETFLIX now, BTW.
This is a thorough and objective review of a film that deserves more recognition. I appreciate the author's insightful analysis and commentary.
Don, great review. You've certainly inspired me to check out what promises to be a terrific experience both intellectually and emotionally, not to mention entertaining.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.