Agora Phobia

A new film about ancient religious conflict resonates, but fails at the box office.

Ralph Seliger

Rachel Weisz as the astronomer and scholar Hypatia in the film <i>Agora</i>, which has had a very limited release in U.S. theaters. The $70 million production had grossed $219,000 in the U.S. as of July 18, according to <a href=""></a>.

It may be relevant that Agora does not emphasize the sensual and romantic qualities of Rachel Weisz – a direction her character might well have taken. She co-starred with Brendan Fraser in the popular comic action flicks, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, and won an Academy Award for her supporting role in The Constant Gardener. But her 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 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.

Agora is an English-language Spanish production (directed by Alejandro Amenábar and written by Amenábar and Mateo Gil) 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, Agoras limited American appeal is perhaps understandable. I saw this big film – filled as it is with great mob scenes and elaborate sets of an ancient city – in a tiny upstairs screening space of a Greenwich Village art house, seating perhaps 50 in what once was the balcony of a larger room. And this was the last of a mere three venues where it was shown in all of New York. 

Weisz’s Hypatia struggles against the rising tide of bigotry as Christians seize power in Alexandria, the great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port and ancient seat of learning. 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 as he won a critical battle in 312 of the Common Era. During his lifetime, 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, or even the mere perception of same. 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 – not that murder and theft are exactly equivalent, but both are politically-motivated crimes committed by fanatics.

With Justin Pollard, co-author of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, as historical adviser, 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.

Pollard’s knowledge of Jewish customs is somewhat anachronistic, however. By the fourth century C.E., Jewish religious law would no longer forbid Jews from defending themselves when attacked on the Sabbath, but worshipers would probably not be using musical instruments in a synagogue service, as pictured when the Parabolani sneak up to hurl stones at the congregation. Still, regardless of Agora’s minor historical flaws, Jews have been repeatedly persecuted, as depicted in Agora, for the alleged crime of deicide (as in They killed our Lord”).

Agora is a warning of what happens when a single religious authority seizes total state power: what Iran already experiences and what threatens some other Muslim-majority countries – not to mention Israel and the United States – each in their own different ways.

Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, the recently expired quarterly publication of Meretz USA, now known as Partners for Progressive Israel, for which he is blog co-administrator, and also blogs for Tikkun Daily.
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