Set in fourth century Alexandria (ancient Egypt) around the time of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria – one of most significant libraries of the ancient world – Spanish auteur Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is as interesting and unlikely a study as his two previous critically acclaimed films The Sea Inside (2004) and The Others (2001).
Agora’s narrative thrust is split between the highly personal and the broadly political. The film pivots around a strong central performance by Rachel Weisz as (first) historically notable female mathematician-philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria as it explores the gender/religious/civic political context of the day. You see, Hypatia is more than just a ‘strong woman’ (which probably wouldn’t have meant a lot to modern viewers in the context of her day), she is simultaneously high-born and a force of intellect in the vein of Socrates or Pythagoras. Her student/disciples (all male) flock to her, hang off her every word, and, in many cases, are smitten with hopeless desire for her. She is also an atheist who declaredly believes only in ‘Philosophy’ – this in a day when almost all others had a strong religious allegiance as an integral part of their identity. Daughter of one of the pagan city’s leading citizens she resides in an Alexandria which is seeing the once persecuted Christian minority emerging (with equal parts charity and violence) into a new role as the state religion. Slowly but surely Hypatia’s lack of allegiance and the moderate/collaborative stance she imbues in her followers, is tested, stretched and ultimately held unacceptable by those who would assert their dominance and power.
Amenábar and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) make good use of the large scale Maltese sets to create a believable feeling ancient world without purposefully highlighting particular temporal tick-boxes. The great library set – replete with giant deity statues, floor to ceiling scroll enclosures and the like – serves as an excellent base for Hypatia and her students but ultimately it is the quality of the writing and acting that lifts this production above the average. Weisz’ fantastic performance may anchor this cast but she is by no means carrying the film. Max Minghella as lowborn slave turned Christian crusader Davus and Oscar Isaac as privileged pagan suitor turned Christian-Roman Prefect Orestes both provide nuanced turns as the polar extremes of the socio-political divide who are enslaved by their respect/desire for their teacher Hypatia.
Where Agora falls short is in its pacing. Though there is a level of blood and guts to be had Amenábar keeps the films focus on the intellectual and philosophical aspects of the film rather than the viscera. The director also (to his credit) eschews the usual need for a central romantic storyline and instead studies the allure of knowledge and power from a gender perspective opposite to the norm. But this is no formally rigorous art house piece, speaking primarily through filmmaking technique and rhythm, but rather an unusually thoughtful film in the historical epic genre. And as some of the key genre components that keep a film of this scale moving have been stripped away, its two hour plus runtime begins to drag. Regardless Agora remains a worthy film that will probably bring satisfaction to most viewers who enjoy a bit more thematic meat served up than you might get in say 2010 historical ‘flopic’ Centurion. The opportunity to see a work about the life of one of the ancient world’s more notable female personages coupled with Weisz’ noteworthy portrayal make this a good pick for a smart evening’s viewing.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell