Movie Review: Agora

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A scientist struggles to maintain her school during a religious revolution in 4th century Alexandria.

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Alejandro Amenabar, 2009

Mathematician and philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is on the brink of a discovery about the solar system and how the Earth troubles around the sun. She delivers lectures at the Platonic school, while her father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is the director of the museum. Two of the students in her class are her father’s slave Davus (Max Minghella) and her would-be paramour Orestes (Oscar Isaac), both of whom are in love with her. Meanwhile, a swell of Catholicism threatens the Roman rule of Alexandria. The religious rebels start attacking Roman institutions in the city, including Hypatia’s school. She refuses to separate her students based on their religion. Years later, when Catholic rule has been established, Hypatia’s sex and atheism are used against her as she struggles to protect the science that she loves.

agora

Agora is a gorgeous, cerebral bore of a movie. Films set in two separate time periods often struggle to feel coherent, and Agora is no different. Alejandro Amenabar seems more interested in his beautiful recreation of Alexandria – from the lovely CGI city to the wonderful costumes and sets – than in telling a story within the city’s walls. It’s hard to remember any particularly strong moments, and even harder to recall any good lines; it’s written with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, despite the intelligence of its central characters. The film’s borderline worshipful respect of the philosophical mind leads to a lot of poorly-written talky scenes with little emotional effect. As a result, the movie feels overlong and frequently becomes boring. It says something that the film’s strongest scenes break out of this mode – Orestes beautifully and awkwardly performing for a disinterested Hypatia, or romancing her while she romanticises the stars; Hypatia protecting her pupils, books, and artefacts from violence. The city does look incredible, despite the fact that we sadly spend most of the movie in only a few locations. The agora, or gathering place, of the title is rarely used effectively, focusing too often on unimportant overactors and not enough on the better characters.

The film is anchored by two strong performances from Oscar Isaac and particular Rachel Weisz. While Max Minghella is bland and unlikeable as the third point in their triangle, the other two are much more effective. Isaac’s Orestes takes on the best character arc, from naive, privileged romantic to resistance fighter (ha) to manipulative political player, each stage performed with raw vulnerability. It’s Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia who is rightfully the focus, though, and she delivers a powerful portrayal of a complicated woman. Hypatia is noble, privileged, victimised and harassed, driven primarily by her love of science. The politics and tragedies of the real world almost seem like inconveniences to her, interrupting her work, until she can no longer ignore them. It’s a shame that the film’s script doesn’t do her justice. There are good intentions in this film, but they’re not well served by the material.

Agora on IMDb

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