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Film / Agora

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Studying what would be lost for centuries

Ágora (written and directed by queer Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar) is 2009 historical drama film portraying the life of the female philosopher Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), as well as her slave Davus (Max Minghella) and pupil Orestes (Oscar Isaac), from the destruction of Alexandria to her death at the hands of fanatical Christians during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I.

It takes a number of liberties with the history it's trying to depict, so take it with a grain of salt.

Agora provides examples of:

  • Age Lift: Possibly subverted. The real Hypatia was over 60, while Rachel Weisz was nearly 40 at the time of filming. However, other sources identified Hypatia's age to be about 30, and given the other liberties taken by the film (see Artistic License - History below), maybe they deliberately chose those in order to make her younger.
  • All Monks Know Kung-Fu: Evoked at least visually with the Parabalani, the militant Christian monks. Their attires are black, sleeveless and with a crossed strap design, making them look weirdly like gladiators or martial artists a la Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. Given that their portrayal in this film is that of agitators and brawlers, this is definitely not casual.
  • Anachronism Stew: The ship used by Hypatia to test her theories has ratlines, which were invented centuries later.
  • Anti-Intellectualism: The film plays with the idea. The Pagans treasure knowledge and have a lot of men (and women!) of science among them, whereas most Christians shown onscreen are unreasonable and comically uncultured, and the ultimate conclusion of the film is a tragic victory of the latter's mindset. However, it is also implied the reason why Christians surpass Paganism in the first place is that they preach for social equality and run charity organizations among the poor, while the Pagans don't give a crap about social affairs and instead dedicate themselves to higher, more ethereal scientific affairs. The message of the film, therefore, seems to be that while anti-intellectualism is bad, these particular intellectuals actually brought it upon themselves for completely unrelated reasons.
  • Artistic License – History: The film contains several deviations in political motivations and personal mindsets of certain characters, which are explained in its own article.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Cyril quotes passages from The Bible to turn the mob against Orestes, specifically quoting verses that state women should be submissive to men, which led the mob to consider Hypatia a witch and kill her.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Hypatia is murdered, Christianity takes over and scientific advance is halted. The end.
  • Barefoot Sage: Hypatia isn't always barefoot, but she seems to have a habit of taking off her sandals when teaching her students.
  • Battle Cry: The Christians shout "God is one!" to differentiate from the polytheistic Pagans. Ironically, among these Pagans there are Platonists, for who God was one too.
  • Church Militant: The Parabalani monks will stone you to death, skin you alive and generally kill you in the most unpleasant ways if you are against their faith.
  • Corrupt Church: Subverted; it's not corrupt, not in the classic sense of the word, but rather the opposite: sincere and very fanatical.
  • Cycle of Revenge: What begins with a couple of public speeches and marketplace debates between dissenting religious groups soon spirals into attacks and acts of public humiliation. Those soon culminate in fully-fledged riots and pogroms, usually in direct retaliation.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: For all her rationalist outlooks, and although she tries to be nice to her slaves, Hypatia is perfectly fine with the institution of slavery and notably lists "people" and "slaves" as being two different categories of beings several times. This is a plot point; Davus is obviously quite intelligent and shares Hypatia's interest in science, but his knowledge that he never will be recognized as "equal" in a traditional Pagan society drives him into the arms of a radical Christian sect, the Parabolani, where he is regarded as equal despite his status.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • The Pagans try to organize a massacre of dozens of Christians in retaliation for the Parabalani's assault on a single priest. It is strongly implied this was neither the first nor the only action the Christians had taken to harass the Pagans, but it is still a fair bit of an overreaction.
    • Hypatia calls Davus an "idiot" while packing and generally adheres to the idea that slaves are lower than free people (even if, paradoxically enough, she still treats Davus better than she treats some free men). This drives him to knock Theon out and participate in the sacking of the library, and not just that, he is only barely able to restrain himself from sexually assaulting her when next they meet.
  • Easy Evangelism: How Davus the slave becomes Christian, as well as many other people in Alexandria. This is well explained through the scenes of Christian sects preaching against slavery and feeding poor people, which naturally gives them a boost in popularity at a social level.
  • The Empire: Literally, since it's the Roman Empire we're talking about.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Neither the Christians, nor the Pagans, nor the Jews are portrayed in what could be described a positive way - they all are equally violent, intransigent and bent on provocation and escalation.
  • A Father to His Men: A Mother To Her Students, that is. Or, in Orestes and Davus' case, actually a Love Interest.
  • Foreign-Looking Font: On the posters, the pseudo-Greek font uses Lambdas in place of Latin alphabet 'A's or Alphas in Greek meaning that if we ignore the fact that a Latin alphabet 'R' is used in place of the correct Greek Rho (which looks like a 'P') and that a Latin 'G' is used in place of a Greek Gamma then the film's title reads: LGORL.
  • The Heretic: Hypatia, after Paganism became illegal, though in a loose sense of the word given that she refuses to convert (in order to be officially a heretic, you must be a Christian first). Considering she was a principled agnostic ("You do not question what you believe; you cannot. I must."), she was technically an enemy of the Christians from the beginning.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The Jews in the film only stone the Christians in rightful retaliation for a similarly violent attack. In historical chronicles, while the Jews weren't exactly at peace with the Christians, there was no Christian ambush. Instead, the Jews attacked them because of Cyril's speeches against them, something that was seen as Disproportionate Retribution and only fueled the Christians' public stance.
  • Historical Relationship Overhaul: The real Hypatia was apparently married (presumably in a Neoplatonist, celibate way) to another philosopher named Isidorus. This character is Adapted Out of the film, whose version of Hypatia claims to have never loved romantically.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Cyril is potrayed in the movie as instigating the murder of Hypatia for being a female scientist, a supposed witch, and a pagan - along with generally being depicted as The Fundamentalist. In history, he didn't order Hypatia to be killed, much less for any of the reasons he has in the film. In the film Cyril's rivalry with Orestes is depicted as being over Hypatia's popularity and influence over Orestes, but in history the rivalry was unrelated to Hypatia, and her death only happened because people (wrongly) assumed Orestes influenced her. To a degree, this villain upgrade depiction also applies to the Christians of Alexandria in general.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: In the movie, Synesius turns against Hypatia and won't support her unless she becomes a Christian. The real Synesius defended her until his death, which incidentally was a year before Hypatia's.
  • Hot Teacher: Hypatia fits the description of this trope most closely, with her student Orestes and her slave/research assistant Davus falling in love/lust with her.
  • Karma Houdini: Cyril eventually came to be remembered as a saint, despite how horrible his actions were.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film tones down many real life elements that might be too gruesome, as the brutality of the religious conflict and Hypatia's own death.
  • Love Triangle: Hypatia, Orestes and Davus.
  • Mercy Kill: Davus asphyxiates Hypatia so she wouldn't have to suffer a much more painful death by stoning at the hands of the other Parabolani.
  • Mirroring Factions:
    • Subverted. The Pagans in the film are portrayed as more tolerant towards other religions than Christians, as they only organize an attack on those in response to a public assault on a Pagan priest, and they also seem to be friendly or at least indifferent to Alexandria's Jewish population, while the Christians are openly hostile to Jews. However, once the provocation happens, the Pagans become just as violent and bloodthirsty as their opponents, and in the ensuing battle there is no moral distinction between a mob and the other.
    • In an unrelated latter, the Pagan prayers said to Serapis are strikingly similar to some attributes given to God in Christianity, which might have been deliberately written in to underline this trope.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Davus manages to stop himself during his attack on Hypatia, and offers his knife to her, expecting to be killed. Instead, she gives him his freedom.
  • Noble Bigot:
    • Christians in the movie are genuinely good people... unless you belong to any religion but theirs.
    • Hypatia herself doesn't consider slaves to be people, even if she usually treats them kindly.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The whole reason Christians started slaughtering Pagans and later Jews. Subverted because Christians are obviously as religious as the others are.
  • Pet the Dog: Cyril is shown giving bread to the poor and teaches Davus to be kind to them.
  • Pretty Boy: Bishop Synesius of Cyrene, played by the British actor Rupert Evans.
  • The Queen's Latin: Like many fictional works set in Ancient Rome, all of the characters have British accents.
  • Race Lift: The ethnic Jews are all portrayed by white actors. Although Christianity encouraged conversion and gained a number of followers from all religions, Jews at this point were still a small ethnoreligious group from the Levant that hadn't spread out to Europe yet.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Hypatia correctly comes to the conclusion that planets orbit in ellipses, but on the assumption that summer and winter come when the Earth is closer to and farther away from the sun, not due to the tilt of the Earth's axis of rotation.
  • Shameful Strip: The mob strips Hypatia naked before they try to stone her.
  • Toppled Statue: Christians destroy the statues in the Library of the Serapeum.