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Peter T Chattaway

Agora

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Mark Shea piggybacks on Fr. Robert Barron's comments about Agora:

Here is a textbook example of how a lie get popularized and becomes pseudoknowledge. Our Manufacturers of Culture, under the influence of powers and principalities, are slowly and surely preparing our culture to undertake a pogrom. Again and again, outright lies about Christians and their history get promulgated while we are told that it is “impeccable research” as, incredibly, the Da Vinci Code was described by one reviewer. Or, we get the ill-informed tracts by New Atheists that would embarrass any real atheist. But, above all, we begin to get the toxicity making its way into popular visual media like Agora.

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Wait a minute, is it true what I hear? Is it true that Agora is opening in the United States this week, at the same time as Prince of Persia and Sex and the City goes to Abu Dhabi? Gadzooks, it's a Middle East triple bill! Sand, sand everywhere.

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Wait a minute, is it true what I hear? Is it true that Agora is opening in the United States this week, at the same time as Prince of Persia and Sex and the City goes to Abu Dhabi? Gadzooks, it's a Middle East triple bill! Sand, sand everywhere.

Yep, the same thought occurred to me also.

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For anyone interested in a useful examination of Agora and the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend this piece by Tim O'Neill (an atheist, no less). (I had thought I or someone else had provided the same link here, but I didn't notice it in a quick skim of the thread.) And again, the book by Maria Dzielska is quite interesting.

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Aces. Thanks, du G. (I've already got the Dzielska book coming via inter-library loan...)

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Fantastic. Thanks so much.

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du Garbandier wrote:

: For anyone interested in a useful examination of Agora and the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend this piece by Tim O'Neill (an atheist, no less). (I had thought I or someone else had provided the same link here, but I didn't notice it in a quick skim of the thread.)

I had thought that, too, but I don't see it either. Then I remembered that I had linked to it at my blog almost a year ago. Maybe A&F was still importing people's blog posts at the time...?

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I had thought that, too, but I don't see it either. Then I remembered that I had linked to it at my blog almost a year ago. Maybe A&F was still importing people's blog posts at the time...?

I don't recall. You know, your mind must contain a small, powerful staff of reference librarians, to be able to pick out that single link from the veritable Library of Congress of links you must have accumulated over the years.

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I'm just too tired tonight to respond to the comment left by "Gaith" on my most recent Agora blog post. It deserves more than a brief reply. But I don't want it to go unanswered. So, if you feel moved to respond there with a comment of your own, you're more than welcome.

FYI: I do moderate comments there, and I won't be able to review and approve them until Friday morning.

Edited by Overstreet

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I dunno, Gaith seems awfully incoherent to me. He alludes to an argument but doesn't make one, unless his argument is that Christians suppressed democracy and the steam engine (huh?) or don't believe in listening to multiple viewpoints before making a decision (aren't ecumenical councils just one of many examples of Christians have a good old-fashioned debate before deciding who was right?).

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I also blogged Tim O'Neill's post ... then wrote a longer post with more commentary on the film.

While I've got plenty to say about the film's negativity toward religion generally and Christianity in particular, this was the part I enjoyed writing the most:

Agora offers no insight into Hypatia’s neoplatonic asceticism. It prominently depicts, but does not understand, the famous episode in in which she rebuffs a would-be suitor by presenting him with her menstrual rags as graphic evidence of the manifest error of his attraction. No attempt is made to illuminate this distasteful episode for viewers, to explore the distance between Hypatia’s neoplatonic sensibilities and our own “sex-positive” milieu.

Instead, Hypatia’s disinterest in marriage is presented solely in terms readily accessible to modern feminism: Marriage in ancient Alexandria would mean subservience to a husband, the end of her independence and her career. The idea that the biological realities of human reproduction were considered unworthy of a soul seeking the highest good isn’t even on the radar.

On this accounting, the menstrual rag can only be a stunt, something that Hypatia and the suitor—Orestes himself, in this telling!—can laugh about years later, in a quasi-romantic moment alone: Hypatia reclining on a couch, Orestes chastely at her side, devoted, resigned, demanding nothing. “Even my father loved a woman,” Hypatia smiles wistfully, sounding more like a Jane Austen heroine than a neoplatonist. “What have I ever loved?”

It’s about as plausible as the film’s depiction of Hypatia’s egalitarian embracing of slaves and aristocrats alike, with no trace of the aristocratic elitism of her age and social class. While Agora stops short of having its heroine speak out against slavery, she does free Davus on her father’s death—this, despite the fact that he has just briefly molested her!

The problem here isn’t simply that the filmmakers make Hypatia the embodiment of all virtue, devoid of even small faults. It’s that they want too much for us to relate to their heroine to allow her to be in any way foreign or alien to us, a woman of her own times.

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FYI: Mr. O'Neill himself just showed up to offer a response to the aforementioned "Gaith" on my blog, where he continued to strip away at common generalizations.

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Finally saw it yesterday. Just a few quick thoughts:

-- The opening crawl says something about the Roman Empire being on the verge of ending at the time the movie is set, which is circa AD 400. Well, that's true, sort of, but still. The Roman Empire had essentially split into two halves at this point, and yes, the Western half -- the half with Rome -- was just a few decades away from its "end", as historians reckon these things. But the Eastern half continued for another thousand years, and it is in the Eastern half that this movie takes place. (However, the city depicted here was, admittedly, conquered by the Muslims -- a religious group that didn't even EXIST when this movie takes place -- only two centuries later.)

-- The opening crawl also says something about the pagan city of Alexandria being threatened somehow (I forget the exact wording) by the Jewish faith and by the rise of Christianity. Um, Jews had been living in Alexandria for centuries by this point. Estimates vary, but the Septuagint -- the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which became the standard Old Testament for the Greek-speaking Christians in the early Church -- was produced in Alexandria about 600 years before this movie takes place. And the Jewish philosopher Philo lived in Alexandria about 400 years before this movie takes place. (If memory serves, there were also anti-Semitic riots in Alexandria around that time, when Caligula was emperor and his friend Herod Agrippa I passed through Alexandria on his way to taking the throne in Judea.)

-- Speaking of Judaism in this period, would a Jew necessarily have defended himself against the Christians by saying "Where would you Christians be without us Jews? Jesus was a Jew!"? That sounds rather modern, even ecumenical, to me. If I'm not mistaken, anti-Christian polemics in the Talmud etc. tend to revolve around the idea that Jesus was the bastard offspring of a Roman soldier or something. (Though a quick bit of Googling indicates that the passages in question might be referring to a different Yeshua. Hmmm.)

-- Why are the Christians the only ones with, like, really bad hair and really bad teeth? It's interesting, too, how the Christians -- almost all of whom are basically Bad Guys -- are played by the most "ethnic" looking actors in the cast (and the few not-so-bad Christians tend to be played by not-so-ethnic-looking actors). It's a strangely retrograde element in a film that purports to be progressive.

-- I do appreciate the fact that this film does not make Christians the ONLY violent jerks, even if the first act of actual violence (throwing a pagan man into a fire) is committed by Christians. The first large-scale violence is perpetrated by the pagans, after Christians taunt and throw vegetables at an idol, and the Christian sacking of the library is presented as a RESPONSE to the pagan violence. Similarly, while a handful of Christians do assault Jews in the amphitheatre, the Jews attack and kill the Christians within their own church, and the Christian slaughter of the Jews is presented as a RESPONSE to this violence. But in both of those cases, the Christians seem to be MORE violent, MORE degenerate, LESS sympathetic -- and the basic thrust of all this is to make EVERYONE look like murderous power-hungry thugs ... everyone, that is, except for Hypatia, the one clearly non-religious character in the entire film, who is interested in nothing more than Science and Enlightenment! (Footnote: There ARE a few characters, like Orestes and Synesius, who are not murderous per se ... but they are portrayed as men in positions of power who, by virtue of the fact that they are in power, do tend to accommodate themselves to the murderous thugs more than they ought to.)

-- After the screening, one or two colleagues who know I'm a Christian asked if the film was "accurate". Not very, I said. But the one detail they were particularly interested in was whether or not the New Testament (which, incidentally, was just beginning to be finalized around the time this movie takes place) actually contains the bit about Paul not permitting a woman to teach. Um, well, yeah, that IS in there. Still, it's interesting that that was the one bit they thought needed verification.

-- I do like all the hyper-aerial shots, and the way Amenabar typically shows Alexandria from unconventional angles (i.e. angles that do not conform to the North=Up and South=Down perspective on typical maps).

More later, perhaps.

Oh, and while I haven't read anyone's analyses of the film yet -- not recently, that is, since I was waiting for a chance to see the film for myself -- I do like SDG's points above about the menstrual-rags episode. Yeah, as handled in the film, it doesn't really make any sense: Is Hypatia, by telling Orestes to go find some other woman, somehow supposed to be suggesting that OTHER women don't have menstrual periods? Of course not, that would be silly. So what IS Hypatia saying here? The film doesn't really seem to have a clue.

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Peter, excellent point about the Eastern Roman Empire, and yes, of course the Diaspora presence in Alexandria was many centuries old. The movie seems to over-juice the instabilities of the local situation. OTOH, it does seem that Alexandria was something of a hotbed of conflict and violence. And yeah, the same question occurred to me about that comment about the Jewishness of Jesus, a point that I rather doubt anyone in that day and age would consider in any way telling.

Your comments about ethnicity and violence in the film parallel my own:

Played by Israeli actor Sami Samir, Cyril’s accent and style of dress typifies the film’s portrayal of Christian fundamentalists as ethnic Middle-easterners in dark garb, in contrast to the pagans, who are brightly robed European types with Oxbridge accents. (There are also non-ethnic, Oxbridge Christians—all educated admirers of Hypatia.)

The depiction of the Christian Parabolani brotherhood, who are transformed over the course of the film from proto-Franciscans who care for the needy into proto-Taliban armed enforcers of public morality, completes the film’s not-so-subtle correlation of Christian violence in Alexandria with Islamic extremism today.

Agora doesn’t blame the Christians exclusively: Christians, pagans and Jews all commit atrocities. (This may be the only film I have ever seen in which a mob of Jews ambushes and kills a group of Christians, apparently a historical incident.) Still, Christians are presented as the instigators. The first act of violence is a pair of ragged Parabolani Christians publicly murdering an aristocratic pagan leader. This is the film’s opening salvo, its first portrayal of Christianity....

It’s in retaliation for that initial murder that the pagans escalate, massacring a crowd of Christians, which leads to the assault on the Serapeum. The Jewish ambush against the Christians is likewise preceded by a pogram-like attack on Jews at the theater. One might say, then, that Christians, pagans and Jews are all equally culpable, especially Christians.

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SDG wrote:

: It’s in retaliation for that initial murder that the pagans escalate, massacring a crowd of Christians . . .

Not quite, I think. There may be a direct connection that I've forgotten, but if so, the two events are buffered by a lot of other stuff. (I did think it was interesting that the initial murder prompts Hypatia's father to go home and beat a Christian slave, just for being a Christian; and of course, it is Hypatia's father who gives the official sanction for the massacre of Christians that follows several scenes later. But when the pagans are planning the massacre, the only justification I can remember them giving for it is that the Christians have been mocking their gods -- and sure enough, the film cuts to a shot of Christians throwing vegetables at one of the pagan statues.)

: The Jewish ambush against the Christians is likewise preceded by a pogram-like attack on Jews at the theater.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of doubly weird, because Christians as a rule were not very fond of the theatre, period, in that era, right? (Actors and entertainers having a certain reputation and all that. Plus, pagan productions tended to involve at least some measure of pagan religious ritual, right?) Were Jews any fonder of the theatre than the Christians were? (And did pagans allow them there?) Would Christians have attacked Jews for breaking the sabbath by being there, and NOT have attacked the pagans for attending the theatre in the first place?

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Nathan Schneider @ Religion Dispatches:

In
, though, Amenábar turned the tables on his pious critics. “Fundamentally, this is a very Christian film about the life of a martyr,” he explained. “Jesus would not have approved of what happened to Hypatia, which is why I say no good Christian should feel offended by this film.” In this respect, at least, his sentiments have historical basis.

Our best period account of the life and death of Hypatia comes from Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian historian in Constantinople who had among his sources a pair of refugee pagan priests from Alexandria. His decree on the whole matter is, exactly, Amenábar’s: “Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.”

Nor were his sentiments any fluke; Hypatia was widely admired by Christians in antiquity and afterward for her learning, chastity, and martyrdom—beginning with her onetime student Synisius of Cyrene, portrayed in the movie as a surfer dude trapped in bishop’s clothes. The Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine (Christian) encyclopedia wistfully remembers her beauty and eloquence, reserving no sympathy for the fellow-Christians who did her in. . . .

In Alexandria at the time, people were getting martyred left and right for not much good reason at all. Socrates Scholasticus tells us, “The Alexandrian public is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed.” With Jews, Christians, pseudo-Christians, philosophers, and pagans all angling for power, Hypatia’s may be more a story about universal stupidity than anything else.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Just wanted to thank the contributors of this thread for all the resources!

Edited by Evan Day

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Agora offers no insight into Hypatia’s neoplatonic asceticism. It prominently depicts, but does not understand, the famous episode in in which she rebuffs a would-be suitor by presenting him with her menstrual rags as graphic evidence of the manifest error of his attraction. No attempt is made to illuminate this distasteful episode for viewers, to explore the distance between Hypatia’s neoplatonic sensibilities and our own “sex-positive” milieu.

SDG, this is a bit of a delayed reaction, but the following bit from that New York Times article just leapt out at me and seemed like an interesting contrast, or footnote, or whatever to the point you make above:

Ms. Weisz, who in 2006 won an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role in “The Constant Gardener,” describes herself as “extremely passionate about what I do” and initially found Hypatia’s cool rationality hard to fathom. Early on, she said, she “half-jokingly” suggested a masturbation scene for Hypatia to Mr. Amenábar, who demurred.

“My fear was that she would be a brain on legs, and that is not interesting to watch,” Ms. Weisz explained. “My hope was that she would be passionate and emotional and full of feeling, even though it was not being channeled into the sexual, personal, human realm. She is in love with science, with learning. It turned her on; that was the only way I could think of it.”

FWIW, the Times goes on to talk about how the filmmakers allowed themselves some dramatic license by, e.g., showing Hypatia figure out the elliptical nature of planetary orbits over a thousand years before Kepler did. What's interesting is how the film suggests that Hypatia's discovery (which, AFAIK, is entirely fictitious) could have brought about the modern era and all its benefits a thousand years or more before the fact -- but darn it, those Christians just couldn't help killing her first, and so her discovery was lost for centuries, until someone ELSE figured it out.

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Sigh. I keep coming across reasons not to like St. Cyril of Alexandria and his entourage. Now Christianity Today says, in its review of Philip Jenkins' Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years:

Virtually all Christians since Constantinople I have agreed that Jesus Christ was and is in some sense both human and divine. But the question of how that truth is to be expressed and defended led to the first killings of heretics by Christians. The great Christian cities of Antioch and Alexandria fell into political and religious rivalry over the fine points of Christology. Each city also wanted stronger influence in the new imperial capital, Constantinople, and so plotted to overthrow the city's patriarchs and replace them with their own favorite sons. . . .

Alexandrian patriarch Cyril, who almost single-handedly defeated Nestorianism in a controversy leading up to the third ecumenical council (Ephesus I in A.D. 431), comes across as only a little less diabolical than successor Dioscorus, who led a band of monks who killed the bishop of Constantinople at the so-called Gangster Synod at Ephesus in A.D. 449. . . .

FWIW, while discussing this film at Facebook a few weeks ago, I also came across an account of St. Cyril's power struggle with St. John Chrysostom (who, incidentally, was bishop of Constantinople), which stated that Cyril not only advocated the exile of Chrysostom during his lifetime but, after Chrysostom's death, refused for years to join the rest of the Church in recognizing Chrysostom as a genuine bishop; reportedly, Cyril said that putting Chrysostom's name in the official list of departed bishops would be on par with restoring Judas to the rank of apostle.

And coincidentally, around the time my Facebook friends and I were discussing this movie, my sister's priest happened to post the following quote from St. Cyril on his blog:

"It is our duty, therefore, to be faithful to God, pure in heart, merciful and kind, just and holy; for these things imprint in us the outlines of the divine likeness, and perfect us as heirs of eternal life." -- St. Cyril of Alexandria

Gee, nice words. But not for the first time, and sadly probably not for the last time either, I have a really, really hard time taking these words at face value when I know what kind of crap the Christian spouting them was up to at the time. (Did Chrysostom think Cyril was "merciful and kind"? To say nothing of Orestes or Hypatia, etc.)

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Coincidentally, within the past 24 hours, this film came up in two very different places in my news feed. In one, a friend of mine from church posted this video to her Facebook wall...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhbOfyF_tMc

...while Juliette Harrisson @ Pop Classics blogged this film for the first time, and while she likes it, she has a few criticisms:

I also think the broad association of ancient philosophy with modern science, alluded to through the dialogue's emphasis on inquiry, is a bit problematic. Ancient philosophers certainly discovered some amazing stuff - atoms and so on - but they had no modern scientific method and they made some serious errors thanks to a lack of inquiry (Aristotle, for example, in On Dreams part 2, insisted that when a woman on her period looks into a mirror, it turns blood-coloured. At no point did he bother to ask Mrs Aristotle, or any other woman, whether this was actually true. It's not, guys).

The Library is presented here in the film as the famous Library of Alexandria, where people also worship the god Serapis (sometimes known as Sarapis). Historically speaking, it was the other way around. The Serapeum, a famous and grand temple to Serapis, also housed an annexe of the library, and it was this annexe that was destroyed along with the temple in AD 391 or 392 by Christians, ordered by the local bishop. Exactly when and how the main library was destroyed has been the source of much debate (if you have access to JSTOR, there is an excellent article on this by Robert Bagnall, 'Alexandria: Library of Dreams' in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 146). The main library was probably destroyed during a war in AD 273 under Aurelian, though there may also have been damage done to it during violent periods under Julius Caesar and Caracalla earlier, and Diocletian later. The Christians must have destroyed a significant section when they destroyed the Serapeum, but most of the Library was lost because of more general war and violence. . . .

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Alright, I would have seen this sooner than later, but all the comments about how inaccurate it was (and on how badly it screwed up the role of Christianity in the story) made me lose my motivation. However, as a general rule, if there's a film about a Greek philosopher made by any filmmaker with talent, I've really got to see it as a matter of principle, so I finally did.

Thoughts:

- In one of the early classroom scenes, you've got the Christian student (Synesius) being offended at a joke and then offended by further criticism. Not a positive portrayal of Christians as it makes being "offended" look quite silly. However, I'll have to admit that it's an accurate portrayal of many modern Christians. It is not a coincidence that it is Synesius who later explains how easily offended God is - "Brother, don't you see? Don't you see the insult to God in front of everyone?" An easily offended Christian has an easily offended God.

- Ammonius's preaching style is ... abrasive to say the least.

- I don't buy that the film is portraying Christianity positively at all. The film is portraying religion negatively, Christianity, polytheism, Judiasm, whatever - all are unreasoning uneducated fanatical mass ignorance. (And yes, Christianity is a religion btw.) The stereotypical cliches of ignorance all make their appearance in this film - talking about how the earth is flat, asking how if the world was round people wouldn't fall off the bottom, shouting mindless chants, not being able to question what one believes, not being able to challenge another's teaching on Scripture, yadda, yadda, yadda.

- Why is the character, Davus in this film again? He seems to add nothing to the story. Max Minghella doesn't make him likeable. The plot doesn't make him likeable. He apparently becomes a Christian because he sees Christians helping the poor. (Something he really learns a lot from.) But, for all the listening he's supposed to be doing around Hypatia, he doesn't think for himself. His choosing to help the Christians destroy the library is ... well, the film's given us zero reasons why he'd want to do so. He does do something selfless, then he does something selfish (like murdering Jews), and then again, etc. His choices as a character make no sense. He's the thoughtful Christian because he ... feels guilty while he's murdering people? Nice. He listens to Ammonius and believes him. He listens to Hypatia and believes her. He asks Ammonius if God talks to him (and it's a serious question). So Davus understands the idea of forgiveness. Who cares? He still doesn't think for himself. Halfway through the film, he's a dumb character that you don't care about. He makes the ending even worse than it otherwise ended up.

- Orestes is a little more interesting (and Oscar Isaac is a much better actor), but his character is just as much a stereotype - "How naive of me. How naive of me to think that anything had changed." He's the practical politician who, as religion mixes with government, becomes ineffective and compromising - allowing the religious warfare to continue out of ... uh ... being practical, I guess. It's never clear why he's a "Christian." He gives up on Hypatia pretty easily, but he's bound to do so by the story, I guess. He does get a good moment with Hypatia when he asks her what difference the truth of a heliocentric universe would make over a geocentric universe when it comes to solving the problems of death and human depravity. When she gets excited, forgets about him and runs off to explore the idea of ellipses, I almost expected him to say "ok, well ... while you're doing that, I guess I'm going to work on stopping some more angry mobs from killing people." At least he's the Christian character who argues that Cyril is twisting the words of Jesus. But, towards the end, they just don't explain his decisions. It's almost as Isaac was ready to develop the character in places where Amenabar simply wasn't going to let him go.

- I have to say the scene where Cyril the Fundamentalist reads I Timothy 2 about women having to be silent is a good scene. The "liberal" or more moderate Christians (Orestes and Synesius both) wince as he reads it. They're uncomfortable with it. They don't know how to explain it. They both end up accepting it, but it goes against their characters. The symbolism in the scene of being asked to, quite literally, kneel before the Scriptures could have come right out of the script for Monty Python's Life of Brian.

- Rachel Weisz is almost perfect as Hypatia. But then she's pretty much fantastic in anything. They probably couldn't cast the character any better. But while you like her, the filmmakers just don't let her develop the character like she's capable of. Her excitement at discovery is catching (she reminds one of past films where she's engaged in other sorts of treasure hunts). Her words are the right ones - "Your god has not proven himself to be more just or more merciful than his predecessors" or "You speak of peddling faith" - but that's because she's the lone voice of reason in a story completely full of nothing but fanatics, idiots and cowards. The bad script noticeably holds Weisz back here. The story is a great story in history - and they could have used the conflicts to develop her character and ask questions that could have made for a masterpiece. Instead, they chose cliches.

- The ending ... without giving away any spoilers, let me just say that that was a stupid ending, with all the creativity you'd expect from what was a dumb character, written by a lazy scriptwriter.

- The entire film left me totally emotionally detached from anything or anyone. I love history and I love ancient history, and this film made it boring. Hypatia and Rachel Weisz both deserved far better than this.

Played by Israeli actor Sami Samir, Cyril’s accent and style of dress typifies the film’s portrayal of Christian fundamentalists as ethnic Middle-easterners in dark garb, in contrast to the pagans, who are brightly robed European types with Oxbridge accents. (There are also non-ethnic, Oxbridge Christians—all educated admirers of Hypatia.)

The depiction of the Christian Parabolani brotherhood, who are transformed over the course of the film from proto-Franciscans who care for the needy into proto-Taliban armed enforcers of public morality, completes the film’s not-so-subtle correlation of Christian violence in Alexandria with Islamic extremism today.

And that's where the film verges almost towards a cartoon. It's so nice to look at and it has so much potential, but instead they resort to this. I don't understand why.

Sigh. I keep coming across reasons not to like St. Cyril of Alexandria and his entourage ... Gee, nice words. But not for the first time, and sadly probably not for the last time either, I have a really, really hard time taking these words at face value when I know what kind of crap the Christian spouting them was up to at the time. (Did Chrysostom think Cyril was "merciful and kind"? To say nothing of Orestes or Hypatia, etc.)

If anything, the film's good for showing a few historical Christians to be the bad guys that they really were. I get tired of hearing the same sort of thing about other Christians who clearly did not deserve to be listened to. Cyril of Alexandria doesn't deserve our veneration any more than a few other historical Christian characters I can think of who had innocent people murdered for no other reason than that they disagreed with them.

Edited by Persiflage

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