Agora film review

Although beautiful to look at and definitely thought-provoking, historical drama Agora is definitely not a film for everyone.

Fans of Ancient World-set movies and TV shows, like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis and Rome, should enjoy the film but they will already be accustomed to the genre’s leisurely pacing and long scenes of robed philosophising and political scheming, which may alienate the more casual viewer. This aside, Agora is inherently a very depressing film – its overarching message is that religious fundamentalism does nothing but destroy knowledge and beauty, and cripples humanity’s advancement towards enlightenment. You WILL finish watching Agora as a misanthrope, utterly disgusted with the human race.

Set in 4th Century Alexandria, when the Egyptian city was still a seat of knowledge in the Roman Empire, Agora focuses on female philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who, despite her sex, is a well-respected teacher and astronomer at the Platonic School – a part of the famous Library of Alexandria. Hypatia is so preoccupied with scientific theory, however, that she is largely uninvolved in the religious turmoil and social unrest overwhelming the city, as Christianity is legalised, and the Faith’s lower-class followers feel empowered to rebel against the aristocratic Roman authorities. While Hypatia is removed from the chaos, the same can’t be said for the two men who adore her, slave Davus (Max Minghella) and regional Roman prefect, Orestes (Oscar Isaac). Their loyalties are further tested when Hypatia is labelled a witch for her unusual, Anti-Christian, independence as a woman, and her continued promotion of the old pagan teachings.

Agora could simply have been a love triangle with a historical setting, but the film sidesteps all romance – especially since Hypatia is already pretty much “married” to science. Rather, Agora comes across as a tale of individuals at the mercy of greater destructive forces. This point is further accentuated by repeated camera cuts from the graphic violence on Alexandria’s streets, to bird’s eye views of the city, and then shots showing the entire planet.

Along with reinforcing Hypatia’s astrology obsessions, these detached Earth shots can also be interpreted as God’s complete disinterest – if there is a God? – in punishing the horrific injustices committed by Man in the name of religion and righteousness.

Agora is not a subtle film. Neither in terms of its message, nor its performances. While the lead actors already mentioned are all excellent – and special mention must go to Isaac, who impressed earlier this year as Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood – some of the supporting cast feel like acting amateurs. Maybe it’s the costumes and setting, maybe it’s the incendiary dialogue, but at times in terms of performances it feels like you're watching a community-staged Passion Play.

Ignoring these drawbacks, and a jarring several year time-split about halfway through the film, Agora is beautifully filmed and offers an authentic, intriguing look at a world rarely depicted onscreen. Relying more on large-scale sets instead of CGI, the historical events depicted feel much more tangible and realistic as a result. Audiences receive an especially strong sense of Christianity’s origins as a religion of the poor and downtrodden, and there is some mild amusement to be gained from comparing how the fundamentalist Christians were distrusted by the Roman rulers then, and how Muslims are perceived today by many Western Christians.

Mixing flaws and fascinating history, Agora still has enough of an emotional charge to squeeze tears from viewers by its end. Although, to be honest, the sadness felt may have less to do with the characters' fates and more to do with the disheartening way in which truth is trampled by religious hypocrisy. In this regard, Agora is a bleaker recent movie experience than even The Road.


Anonymous said…
A very thorough and thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar played a little fast and loose with history. The Great Library of Alexandria didn't end as he depicted and Synesius wasn't such a jerk. However, that's what artists do. I don't go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.
Pfangirl said…
Thanks for commenting, faithljustice. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts on the film and the real life, largely forgotten history behind it.
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