The following is an abbreviated version of my full film review now online at the In These Times website:
It may be relevant that Agora does not emphasize the sensual and romantic qualities of Rachel Weisz…. [H]er star turn as Hypatia, a scholar and astronomer of pagan background who preaches tolerance and brotherhood in late fourth-century Alexandria, while scientifically probing the secrets of the solar system, is apparently not the stuff that draws Americans to the box office.
Agora is an English-language Spanish production … that was highly prized internationally and Spain’s highest grossing film in 2009; yet it struggled for distribution in the United States before its release here on May 28. With a female intellectual as its hero and Christian fanatics as its villains, Agora’s limited American appeal is perhaps understandable. …Weisz’s Hypatia struggles against the rising tide of bigotry as Christians seize power in Alexandria….
Interestingly, Weisz is an English Jew whose parents found refuge in Britain from the Nazis. Ashraf Barhom is a veteran Israeli-Arab actor (featured in The Syrian Bride, Paradise Now and The Kingdom) who plays Ammonius, the head of the Parabolani monks, an order of paramilitary Christian militants. The Parabolani remind one of the Taliban for their violent enforcement of a narrow-minded and woman-hating ideology of exclusive religious truth and social morality.
Christianity emerged from being a persecuted minority faith to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, following Emperor Constantine I’s mystical conversion experience …. Constantine not only profoundly changed the fate of Rome and its empire, but also enforced a new orthodoxy upon other Christians. And he forever transformed Christianity beyond its pacifist origins.
Agora reminds us that nothing better turns a revolutionary movement of the downtrodden toward fanaticism than long years of injustice and indignity at the hands of others…. This resonates today, whether in the odious acts of suicide bombers murdering innocent civilians or of ultra-nationalist settlers seizing land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem….
… Agora graphically depicts the eclipse of Greco-Roman paganism and the suppression of rational intellectual inquiry in the name of a rigid text-based orthodoxy. Agora also re-enacts a bloody pogrom against the Jews and the expulsion of this substantial community from Alexandria, a pattern tragically repeated in numerous places during the next 15 centuries. ….
(Read it all at InTheseTimes.org.)