Agora (2009)

I first saw Agora at TIFF in Toronto almost a year ago, and remember walking out thinking: “this film will not find a distributor easily (if at all), and that’s a real shame”. You see, it’s a ‘swords and sandals’ epic story, loosely based on the events in Alexandria, Egypt in 4th century. It shows the famed library, and the emerging scientific renaissance that unfortunately takes a step back, when this new world brings in young, volatile religions, and things start to turn violent.

You see, the “bad guys” in this film are Christians – shown as a vicious, brainwashed crowd that slowly grows in strength, dismisses the (populist at the time) multi-god religion, and instead, shoves early version of Jesus mythology down people’s throats. It’s an intellectual conquest in reverse – tell the masses what they want to hear, discourage learning, and turn them against the popular rule. The film features a few massacres, and the eventual burning of the priceless library (also loosely based on historical facts), which directly and simply accuses religious zealots – especially early Christians – of intolerance and dirty political shenanigans. Sounds familiar? Something we’ve witnessed in recent years? Well, no wonder the reviews at the time were harsh, and the film really couldn’t get the attention it deserved.

A quick side note here – forget about the film as a spectacle, or story – and just consider the source material. Wikipedia actually lists 4 different destructions of the famous library – historically recorded (and here’s the entry on the film itself, take time to read the ‘critical reception’ section). The director (Alejandro Amenabar) just happened to pick one of them, and added some elements from surrounding events/places to punch up the drama. Notice the Muslim conquest in AD 642 – do you think this movie would even be made (without threats, suicide attempts, or negative campaining), if the bad guys were, gasp – Muslims? Just a thought – this region was handed from one empire to another for ages, and often, death and destruction was quite prominent. Nothing wrong with depictions of bigotry and violence – it DID HAPPEN, and dismissing it is an equivalent of burying your head in the sand.

If the so-called critics, and potential distributors would bother to look up the historical evens, and maybe see the movie for its ideas – the value of science, and freedom of expression – perhaps Agora would have been seen by more people.

As a spectacle, it’s a pretty good epic story, with high ideas expressed within the walls of the library, and sharply contrasted with seething, unstoppable violence on the streets. There are some great references to the beginning of the end of Roman empire, and there are dead-on observations of Christian and Jewish – still emerging – traditions and values. Politically incorrect, definitely, but making a point and drawing parallels with today’s intolerance. The whole ‘slavery’ angle is given more thought and shown as an acceptable practice – at the time. But no, this just didn’t go over well, I clearly remember people hissing in the theater, and being genuinely displeased with the way things were portrayed. Well, as an ‘idea’ movie, maybe that was the point, no? To turn the tables a little?

I felt the discomfort, but appreciated the intent – it’s the 4th century, the world is still emerging, there will be bloodshed, and there will be unnecessary destruction. As long as we remember what is lost during this turmoil, we perhaps can learn and prevent it from happening again. After all, the book-burnings were quite popular just 60 years ago in Germany. And as for the slavery – some southern states are still holding out hope that things will go back to the way they were. These people ‘want their country back’! Intolerance stays, bigotry has immense power, and knowledge/truth/enlightenment usually suffer when left unprotected. Tea Party, anyone? Fringe movements that make things worse for others?

It’s a real shame the film never got the attention it deserved. Was ‘widely’ released just a couple of months ago, and quickly died at the box office. Find it online, or rent it – you won’t like the tone and some of the finger-pointing – but I hope you will approve of the ideas and intent. The last time something similar was on the big screen was probably “The Name of the Rose”, in 1986. I still remember Sean Connery musing: “How many more rooms? Ah! How many more books? No one should be forbidden to consult these books freely.” Oh, and if you will sit through all the black and white portrayal of Christians vs. Jews (yes, the film does show a little bias, but there’s a reason for it), and wait until the closing scenes, please compare it with the opening sequence, and consider the end-credits. Knowledge is invaluable, and freedom of expression – if mixed with careful misinformation campaigns – can be a devastating weapon. Sadly, it’s still used today…

Agora. 4th century Egypt. The famous Alexandria library. Rachel Weisz, Alejandro Amenabar, Oscar Isaac, Max Minghella. Get it. It’s worth your time.

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