“Alexandria, Egypt. 391 A.D. The World Changed Forever”
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
Synopsis: A historical drama set in Roman Egypt, concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, the famous female philosophy and mathematics professor Hypatia of Alexandria.
Considering Alejandro Amenabars historical drama Agora focuses on such commercially unpopular themes as philosophy, religion, astronomy and politics, it’s perhaps no surprise the movie bombed at the box office, pulling in around half of its $70 million budget. That perhaps explains why intelligently scripted movies are so rarely made these days. Agora is an English-language Spanish production — no doubt the Hollywood studios wouldn’t go anywhere near such a commercially unviable proposition — that, while apparently combining fact and fiction to tell its tale, at least delivers a literate and absorbing one. The problem it has is getting people to watch it in the first place.
British actress Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a philosophy and mathematics teacher in Alexandria during the declining years of the Roman Empire. She’s the kind of teacher who’s not much older than her students, and over whom the young male members of her class drool. One of them, Orestes (Oscar Isaacs), even goes so far as to publicly declare his love for her, which she equally publicly — and rather cruelly — rejects. As a member of the upper class, Hypatia owns a number of slaves, one of whom, Davus (Max Minghella) has also fallen in love with her. As Hypatia puzzles over the exact orbit of the earth around the sun — or the sun around the earth — her home town of Alexandria is undergoing a violent religious upheaval as the Christians begin asserting their views over both Pagans and Jews.
To be honest, the Christians are depicted as the out-and-out bad guys in Agora, forcing rival pagans to walk through fire, throwing rocks at Jews because they know the Jews’ faith prevents them from fighting back on their Sabbath, and generally defiling the prominent Pagan statues in the city. Hypatia is untroubled by all this as she has forsaken religion in her pursuit of philosophical and scientific knowledge. But her father is a high-ranking member of the old order, and it’s only a matter of time before she is affected by the religious upheaval.
Amenabar and co-writer Mateo Gil include plenty of scenes of violence to counter-balance the more cerebral aspects of the story. Perhaps surprisingly, these opposing aspects of the movie mesh together quite well. Davus becomes a Christian and deserts Agora to become a kind of armed agitator for the cause, while Orestes, having converted to Christianity and attained the position of Prefect of Alexandria, finds his friendship with Hypatia comes at a high price that highlights the conflict between religious faith and personal loyalty.
Amenabar adopts a seductively lush and dynamic visual style to depict the glorious buildings of ancient Alexandria at a time when they were near their pomp. The images are breathtaking at times, as are some of the CGI effects Amenabar uses, in particular one stupendous slow zoom shot from outer space to a building in the city. Weisz, who is perhaps an actress one wouldn’t normally expect to see in a film of Agora’s nature, struggles against the obtrusive casting, but copes well with the demands of the part, as does Oscar Isaac as the noble and honourable Orestes.