‘Agora’ is an English-language Spanish production that was highly prized internationally but has not been a commercial success in the US. With a female intellectual as its hero and Christian fanatics as its villains, perhaps one can see why such a big film has a small American audience.
Rachel Weisz, a Jewish actress of some note from England, plays the central role of Hypatia, a scholar of pagan background who preaches tolerance and brotherhood against the rising tide of bigotry that takes hold in late 4th and early 5th century Alexandria. Ashraf Barhom, an Israeli Arab actor, plays Ammonius, the head of the Parabolani monks, a violent order of paramilitary Christian militants, who remind me of the Taliban.
This is the time when Christianity suddenly emerged from a persecuted minority faith to being the new state religion of the Roman Empire. With Justin Pollard, co-author of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria (2007), as historical adviser, ‘Agora’ graphically depicts not only the eclipse of Greco-Roman paganism, and the suppression of rational intellectual inquiry in the name of a rigid religious orthodoxy, but also the brutal oppression and exile of the large Jewish minority in Alexandria. It is here, perhaps for the first time, that Jews are subject to the charge of deicide (as in “they killed our lord”).
‘Agora’ is a warning of what happens when one religious authority alone exercises total state power: what Iran and Saudi Arabia already experience and of what some other Muslim-majority countries (not to mention Israel and the US, to some degree) are at risk of becoming.