Susan Jacoby reviews “Agora”

And she likes it!

This idea of intellectual inquiry as a self-evident good died in the West for nearly 1200 years with the ascendancy of Christianity, and it is always–as we see in much of the Islamic world and in the precincts of far-right Christianity today–an object of hatred for those who would still criminalize heresy and blasphemy and, in the case of Islamists, murder those who defy their definitions.


It has been wryly suggested that Agora, the recent film about Hypatia of Alexandria, was a kind of religious film turned on its head. “St. Hypatia, murdered by oyster shell,” was one version I heard. Well, the film has no oyster shells, but I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it. If freethinkers have saints – which I surmise they don’t –  Hypatia would be one. But, like I said, there are no saints of freethought.

The Hypatia portrayed in the film is wise, compassionate, restless, moderate in all things save intellectual fire. She is not a “pagan” in the sense that she is not given over to worshipping statues and whatever deities the Alexandrian Christians of her day were out to topple. She was a sect of one. Like Thomas Paine, her church was her own mind.

“You cannot question what you believe; I must.” That is the motto of the freethinker. Whether or not the historical Hypatia was indeed such a person may never be known. We do know that she was a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. But what I find interesting is that a major historical epic chose to promote a freethinking “saint.” Was this a belated answer to Mel Gibson?

Agora could not, to my mind, have been made ten years ago. A secular renaissance was necessary in order for a big-budget movie to take such a rationalist stance against religious fervor and the pitfalls of pious politics. Indeed, the Christian mob charged with Hypatia’s murder overtly resembles the Taliban. That’s no accident.

Was Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia improbably chaste? She was a bit too perfect, as if the director felt the need for a freethinking Madonna. She could’ve used at least one good temper tantrum, considering that her beloved city and her entire culture was collapsing at her feet.