May 30, 2010


This historical spectacle directed by Alejandro Aménabar is the first cheesy anti-religious epic in the history of film (excluding perhaps Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and for this, it must be commended.  Agora is an allegory about religious fundamentalism and religious intolerance; not intolerance towards religion but the intolerance of the religious, and it is rousing, emotional and rather effective. It is also long, and a little bit choppy and muddled but it has a great central performance by the gorgeous and talented Rachel Weisz, who plays Hypatia, an ancient philosopher and scientist who held court in Alexandria at the end of the Roman Empire and who was revered for her brilliant mind.  If she is looking, the real Hypatia must be thrilled to be reincarnated by Miss Weisz. She is so convincing, so beautiful and looks so gorgeous in Roman togs that she makes the best case for atheism and scientific inquiry ever. I hope millions of kids of all persuasions (girls included) pine at her like soldiers used to pine for Betty Grable and decide to become either scientists or atheists or both. It was about time there was a movie defending freedom from religion, cheese notwithstanding.
The movie is a Spanish production but shot with English speaking actors and an Oscar winning actress, so that it can have as much reach as possible (though I doubt it will play in Teheran). The parallels between the antics of the intolerant Christian mobs and the Islamoterrorists who have the world shitting in our collective pants are very resonant, but the movie is really about the fundamental difference between reason (and its byproducts, science and philosophy) and religion; which is the difference between doubt and certainty.
Alexandria around 350 AD was a goulash of Romans, feverish new Christians, and Jews. The pagan religion has become a tacky synthesis of Roman and Egyptian gods and the Romans are portrayed mostly as arrogant, fickle drips. They wear the best clothes. The Christians all look like a group photo of the Taliban, a bunch of joyless, selfrighteous, insufferably dark sadomasochists, all dressed in black rags, with a penchant for throwing stones at the slightest provocation.
The Jews get to wear some fabulous clothes too, and there is a scene in which they take revenge on the Christians who attacked them at a theater performance by hurling stones back at them. In short, it's a free for all, with the Jews caught in the middle between political and religious power and therefore, conveniently expendable.
For a movie about the purity of scientific inquiry and freedom of thought, Agora is surprisingly emotional. The way to dramatize the movie's thesis is to frame the story in emotional terms. A slave, well played by Max Minghella, has a major crush on Hypatia, as does Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and their feelings for her set the story in motion. Liberties have been taken, and this provides most of the cheese, but somehow it works, because as always, the personal is political. 
The movie makes certain powerful points about the perils of allowing religious fanaticism to go unchecked. The Christian mobs, afire in religious fervor, lay waste to the surviving Library of Alexandria and turn it into a barn, in much the same way as every tyranny is afraid of, and therefore hates, books and reason. Anti-intellectualism is one of the foundations of tyranny (which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and the like give me the major willies). Political power wrongly aligns itself with mob sentiment in order to protect itself. In fact, political power, when confronted with raging mobs of the unhinged by faith is deeply afraid to counter them.
The movie is so effective about provoking outrage that at one point I heard myself thinking that religion should be banned. Problem is, banning religion is behaving like the enemy. Religion should not be banned. But in my ideal world, people would believe in whatever they want to believe (that does not entail the destruction of other people), but God and whoever are his prophets would be stripped of their holiness. It is the concept of holiness and purity that gives us these idiotic, unnecessary headaches. It is the concept of holiness that needs to be abolished, since there is absolutely no proof of its existence in the universe. We are human, and deeply flawed. In its best moments, religion has given us civilizing traits, useful moral boundaries and some good literature. In its worst, it's been nothing but appalling destruction, tyranny, injustice: bestial behavior.
I feel lucky to have been born in the 20th Century when even I know that the Earth moves in an ellipse around the Sun. I grew up hearing the names of Ptolemy, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Einstein, instead of thinking I'm gonna fall off the edge of the world if I walk too far. Science even gave us the movies, which is one of its most fabulous achievements, as far as I am concerned. But give science to people obsessed with purity and you get the Nazis. Give science to people obsessed with profits and you get drugs to make your lashes thicker and longer.
There is no holiness in the world. There never will be (I don't care how much you meditate, how much you pray, how much yoga you make, how much tofu you eat). But we can strive to be good and just and live and let live. How about this for a religion?

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