Agora (2009)

Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Plot: 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 professor and atheist Hypatia of Alexandria.

Genre: Adventure/Drama/History/Romance
Awards: -
Runtime: 126min
Rating: M18 for mature themes, violence, and partial nudity.


Alejandro Amenabar, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of The Sea Inside (2004) and the modern horror classic The Others (2001), brings us way back into the past to the time of the Roman Empire. Premiered at Cannes but screened out of competition, Agora was not good enough to warrant a Golden Palm nomination. I feel this is Amenabar’s weakest picture to date and it is fairly obvious to any viewer that the film leaves much to be desired.
Agora can be loosely classified into a swords-and-sandals epic, an action-adventure sub-genre which has produced acclaimed films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) to flops like Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). However, the director tones down on action spectacle and brings in ideological themes instead. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, an atheist astronomer whose beliefs are grounded in scientific theories and the wisdom and knowledge of her predecessors. In the film, she becomes obsessed with trying to explain the movements of the Earth and the Sun – issues which are not important considering the fact that Christians are at war with the Pagans.
Weisz’s character then becomes a symbol of anti-Christianity. She is a strong, resilient force who will not bow down to “foreign ideology” and vows to seek the truth about the universe (and consequently who we are) through factual observation and logical understanding instead of relying on the “Word of God”. Once again, the tussle between rationality versus faith set forth in the recent religious film by the Coens, A Serious Man (2009), comes into play.
Amenabar treads on sensitive waters here. But because Agora is a film “based on historical fact” (how much of it is true only a history scholar can tell), he has the “justification” to include blasphemous material which can be very offensive to Christians. Ideological conflict takes center stage in this film and bloody skirmishes between the Pagans and Christians become its natural consequence.
Amenabar films these skirmishes with quite a bit of skill even though he is not known as an action director. His camera movements remain fluid but the film lacks unforgettable images and thrilling set-pieces. Conventional storytelling also does not help its cause. The result is a two-hour plus “epic without the epic-ness”. Some will read Agora as a love story between Hypatia and Davus (Max Minghella), a slave who joined the Christians for freedom. But this comes out as trivial in the film.
Even the final fifteen minutes when Hypatia is arrested by the Christians to be brutally tortured to death, the presence of Davus, who tries to ease her suffering, fails to ignite that inadequately captured sense of “forbidden love”. By Amenabar’s standards, Agora is a let-down. There is nothing great here, but at least there is still something to see.

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