I was skeptical at first whether this film would actually make our shores here, given that it sets itself at the junction of early civilization, the waning of the Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt. During the screening, it dawned upon me that this film is most apt and timely in reminding everyone of the need for religious tolerance and harmony, because unless we learn from history, we are going to make the same kind of mistakes and never learn from it, putting ourselves as a people many steps back in terms of progress, given what has already happened here when a religious leader decides to mock another faith.
Agora goes back to a time where the Christians were growing in numbers, and a society which are made up of them, the pagan worshippers, and those who follow philosophy, or science for that matter. Starring Rachel Weisz in the lead role of Hypatia, a leading female philosopher who teaches at The Library, a repository of a wealth of knowledge of mankind at the time, hers is the imparting of knowledge to her group of elite students, who one day would take up important leadership roles in future society, while keeping herself busy through the research of astronomy and geography, at a time where the Earth was considered flat and at the centre of the universe. There were many interesting schools of thought which we are likely to chuckle at now, but these make for glimpses of good insights as to how theories and hypotheses get developed, tested and proven.
Outside of the school however, is where the action is and toward which the film gravitates as trouble begins to brew, where everyone wears their religion on their sleeves, making callous remarks such as comparing gods, and that “my god is better than your god”, the kind of mockery and insults thrown around that is bound to warrant irrational responses, even if they are thrown about today by careless groups seeking to provoke. So when one group decides to take up arms, no thanks to the goading by a religious leader, blind followers of the faith will not resort to peaceful resolution, but one that bays for blood.
How mob mentality can take over rational thought easily, and it is well known of the responsibilities that religious leaders should hold, and the clout they have over their followers. This is especially dangerous when false prophets are abound, and their deliberate and measured twisting of scripture interpretation for their own political ends has to be something to be nipped in the bud. But therein lies another challenge to the political masters, the Romans in this case, since they too irk to be seen taking heavy handed measures lest they themselves fall out from their political seats of power when people choose to riot, and that chaos caused by followers would overwhelm their own soldiers, who in turn of course, belong to their respective faiths.
And the peril of religious riots cannot be more than emphasized when friends have to turn against friends, slaves against masters, and everything reduced to rubble just because one group decides to wage battle with another, regardless of the cost, which in this case was to put civilization back many years when scientific records and journals were destroyed in the name of being blasphemous. Sometimes I just wonder, whatever happen to good common sense of moral decency, when one preaches to be of a certain faith, but the deeds done run contrary to the message the faith preaches, devoid of love and forgiveness, but replaced with human failings such as hatred and violence.
Filmed in Malta with gorgeous sets recreating the space of a time long buried in the annals of history, the film provokes thought on multiple levels, dealing with the likes of religious tolerance, friendship, desire, science through the main characters of Hypatia and those who are orbiting around her centre, such as slave turned moral police-monk Davus (Max Minghella), prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) whose love Hypatia once spurned and is put under growing pressure to be bow to the political power wielded by Bishop Cyril (Sami Samir), and Synesius (Rupert Evan), once a student and now Bishop of a neighbouring land brought in to try and neutralize Cyril's powerful clout.
Being a period piece you'll soon find yourself absorbed by the tale of bigotry and the dangers of what ambition of a religious leader can do given their personal agendas, if left unchecked to incite hatred and ridicule against non-believers, and worse, violence, which will be a tad too late to try and remedy. The message contained within the film cannot be more applicable in the world of today. Highly recommended must watch film this crowded week, and it goes into my list as essential viewing.