Agora presents a world split in two by the ousting of the old by the supplanting of the new. Agora parallels real world antagonism in an important way: peaceful religions twisted in violent aggression and murder.
Inside Hypatia of Alexandra (Rachel Weisz)’s philosophy class, everyone, every religion, is equal and unimportant in the presence of higher philosophical questions. Within the bounds of philosophy there are no bounds, there is no question that should not be asked or that can’t be posed. This lack of limitation attracts the most highly intelligent, a scenario in which Hypatia thrives.
Outside of this cerebral sanctuary, the religious/political world is in a state of flux.
Hypatia is the idealistic island in the film as three of her students grew and change with the times. Unaccepting of the times, Hypatia, a polytheist, soon is the lone boat in an ocean of Christianity that would consume her save for the intervention of long time student turned suitor turned Roman Alexandra Governor Orestes (Oscar Isaac).
Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) gives a good performance in Agora, a charismatic Parabolani monk and zealot who attracts and convinces through conviction and action. His spell falls most readily upon the young and easily impressionable, people like Hypatia’s slave Davus (Max Minghella).
Present in this film is the scary side of religion, hardliners that see issues and the world in the black and white spectrum: You either see the world as we see it and believe in a deity, the deity, as we do or you are against us. If you are against us, you are our enemy.
The destruction of ascertainable knowledge by blind faith (some would argue that not knowing is a key element of faith) is a recurring theme throughout the film. With the ushering out of an old religion, so goes the general acceptance of the knowledge gained by believers in that religion. The two are not intrinsically linked but the mob mentality in regard to it is impossible to quell, especially with the backing of tyrannical Rome.
The fact that Jesus was Jewish is spoken of only once in the film, quickly, and then is never brought up again. One of the most important aspects of Christianity being disregarded so carelessly is very curious but perhaps it is an example of how carelessly and irrelevant this fact was to Christians of that time period. Even more curious is the Parabolani have no appreciation or respect for the Jews in their community even though their Christ was a Jew, had a Jewish mother, father, brothers, sisters, studied The Torah and followed Jewish laws (and Roman ones) and traditions all his life. All of this common sense is overlooked and unacknowledged.
All the while, ensconced in an intellectual cocoon, Hypatia grapples with questions about the universe and its inner workings. Her musings on the universe and her death scene are the best parts of Agora. The greatest performances by Weisz and Minghella in the film occur in Hypatia’s final scene. The anguish on Davus’ face and desperation in Hypatia as unknown hands touch her from behind then as life leaves her body and her eyes close coupled with that of the film’s musical score equaling the moment will make the viewer wish the rest of the film were as well executed (because unfortunately it is not). All throughout the film, Hypatia has been trying to solve the riddle of a universe dominated by circular rotation and it is during her last moments of life that she gazes on the circular opening of the temple roof, with the knowledge that the planets rotate in an elliptical pattern. Also of note is the cinematography right after the scene. After Hypatia’s death, the Parabolani reenter the temple and Davus tells them that she has fainted onto the floor, a very clever lie on his part. Note how the scene is expertly framed: the camera over the Parabolani’s shoulders as they enter and then centered as Davus walks toward it.
Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a film about religious persecution and intolerance but also the former marriage of religion and government. Could the film’s three acts have been as good as its ending, yes. The same can be said of Scorsese’s Shutter Island but to a far less degree in this film.