Directed By: Alejandro Amenábar
Written By: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil
Produced By: álvaro Augustín, Fernando Bovaira
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 127 minutes
Release Date: July 23, 2010
Review Date: July 23, 2010
There is no denying the modern parallels of Agora, partially the story of the teacher, philosopher, and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who lived and taught in Alexandria during the upswing of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Her life and work is a bit of a historical mystery, and so is her death — although the basics are pretty much agreed upon by contemporary and later accounts.
What is known is that she studied the stars and was killed by a group of Christians because of her perceived influence over a state official. One side finds the blame on them, the other on her.
Alejandro Amenábar, who co-wrote and directed, is on Hypatia’s side, through and through. She is exploring the movements of the observable planets in the solar system and the sun, trying to determine how they could possibly rotate around the Earth in a perfect circle if their distance keeps changing throughout the cycle. She wants to believe in a simple explanation for it all. There must be order, and order is that simple. The circle is the perfect shape, God is perfect, and God created the heavens and Earth. Without a logical plan, then there is no meaning, and she cannot bear the thought of living in a world without meaning.
She is, in this fictional account, the voice of reasonable order. The Christians are the cacophony of chaos and intolerance and hatred. It’s very easy to sympathize with the former, and Amenábar and fellow screenwriter Mateo Gil make every possible effort to ensure the latter are cast decidedly as the villains.
This is where the movie inherently errs. The Christians of the movie see one of two ways: good or evil. Likewise, Amenábar falls into the same trap. The movie unearths many worthy ideas in this transitional time and finds them stymied by the same kind of black-and-white worldview it purports to condemn.
Hypatia is beset on all sides by men. Her father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is in charge of the Museum of Alexandria, home of the city’s great library and the school where Hypatia teaches. He is a powerful man, and the other powerful men of the city wonder why his daughter has yet to marry. Her interest lies in the scholarly arts, and marrying would mean an end to her pursuits. The men, who want her to give up her work and become a wife, don’t understand, and hence, she is right in her decision.
Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a student of hers and later governor of the province of Egypt, loves Hypatia. His family is rich, and she eyes a sense of entitlement in him. After he gives her the gift of a song in a very public setting, Hypatia gives Orestes the gift of rags covered in the result of her menstrual cycle (This is based in history).
On the other end of the class struggle is Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s slave and student who also loves her. He is nowhere near as vocal as Orestes, and instead, he looks at her longingly as she bathes and builds a geocentric model of the solar system to show he is indeed rapt in her lessons.
Early in the movie, these characters are background players to the larger political climate of Alexandria. Christianity, a generation ago punishable by death, has started to have its followers assemble with much vigor in the plaza (the Agora). One is a monk named Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), who performs a “miracle” by walking across hot coals unburned and proves that the old gods are false by throwing one of their believers into the same fire. Davus becomes his pupil as well, visiting an early church where he witnesses the poor being fed by their own community. This, Davus believes, is the faith for the downtrodden and rejected of society.
Amenábar and Gil are on to something truly intriguing in juxtaposing the religious and class struggles of Alexandria. Unfortunately, it is not a concept long for the story, and soon after, the Christians are destroying the library, stoning Jews in the theater, and proclaiming Hypatia a witch. All the while, Hypatia unlocks the nature of planets, the sun, and the Earth’s proper place among them.
It makes Amenábar’s case against fanaticism with a deafening blare, but Agora simply isn’t that involving on an emotional or intellectual level as a result.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.