Judge Roman Martel reviews a movie starring Rachel Weisz in Egypt—which has nothing to do with mummies.
Hatred and intolerance lead to the destruction of civilization.
So, Agora is about this ancient mathematician who—hey wait a minute, where are you going? Don't run away. Why do you wince when I say math? Stop twitching and sit down!
Facts of the Case
Agora starts in 391 AD in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. At this time the city was controlled by the a crumbling Roman Empire. The official imperial religion, Christianity was spreading among the people. But a heavy Jewish and pagan population led to violence erupting almost daily.
Against this backdrop we meet Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) a brilliant mathematician, philosopher and teacher. She spends her time with pupils in the Temple of the God Serapis, where the remaining books of the great Library of Alexandria is also housed. Hypatia does her best to teach, even when religious arguments come up between classmates Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Synesius (Rupert Evans). Then there is the house slave Davus (Max Minghella) who has fallen for his mistress, listens to her every word, and yet dares not reveal his feelings.
Alexandria explodes in riots as the Pagans assault the Christians and then are driven back into the Library. It becomes very apparent what side the Christian Emperor is going to favor, and Hypatia and the other scholars fear for the fate of the thousands of scrolls and books that house much of the scientific and philosophical knowledge of the western world.
The wheels are set in motion as religious fervor and blind hatred surround all these lives and drive them toward a conclusion that changes the face of Western Civilization for over 1000 years.
Agora is tackling some weighty subject matter. It presents the story of the final destruction of ancient Western knowledge at the hands of a hateful mob so entranced with their own dogma that they don't care what they are doing. Voices of reason are lost or silenced and we are left with a black future: namely the Dark Ages. Its a grim story, and yet an engrossing one because of all the elements that director Alejandro Amenabar uses to tell it.
First off is the amazing production design of the movie. You are immersed in the city of Alexandria from the first instant to the last. Amenabar uses a nice mix of large sets, computer generated backgrounds, and top notch costuming to recreate the ancient world. This movie is going for the epic look and succeeds with flying colors.
Further helping is the large scale musical score by Dario Marianelli. Filled with powerful themes and ethnic flavors, Marianelli captures the scale of the film and the subject matter and accents it perfectly. This score is a fusion of classic epic style, such as Ben Hur and more modern sensibilities that were heard in Gladiator.
However, its the actors who really make the film work. I've never seen Rachel Weisz as good as she is here. She makes Hypatia a real person. We understand how her desire to know more about her world drives her. We see her delight in teaching others and experimenting. We see her horror at the violence around her. As things continue down the dark path, she struggles with what she must do, and Weisz does a great job here, giving us a clear glimpse into the mind of a woman who is trapped in a world she can not change. I can recommend viewing the film for her performance alone.
But the rest of the cast does a great job as well. The three main male parts of Davus, Orestes and Synesius start out as young pupils and end with them as men in power. Each actor handles the part well, allowing us to see how these men grew into their power and how Hypatia affected (and still affects) their motives.
The script has a unique structure, playing out almost as two separate stories. The first establishes the characters and builds to a climax with the mob attack on the Library. Then we jump forward 15 years, to catch up with the characters and watch as the power plays between the Romans, Christians and Jews comes to another head and leads to the dark finale. It's like you get two tragedies in one movie! How economical. This was done to illustrate the theme behind the film. Intolerance and hatred not only destroy lives and property, but also destroy knowledge. The first time you see it literally as the Library is devastated. But the second time you see it as the destruction of one brilliant mind freezes scientific knowledge for over a thousand years.
Lionsgate has given this disc a great presentation. The transfer is very good for a standard DVD, really showing off the sets and costumes. The 5.1 audio is balanced well, allowing the wonderful score to shine when it needs to and the dialogue to come across clearly. The extras are surprisingly plentiful with deleted scenes, an extensive documentary about the making of the film from script to post production, costume and production design sketches, a photo gallery, an introduction by Alejandro Amenabar as well as a commentary by him. Be warned, he speaks in Spanish during the commentary, so it's subtitled as you watch the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I appreciated the movie and the performances, the script had a few issues. This is a movie focused on its themes, and it does this by sacrificing some of the characters and connective story. It makes the film feel a bit choppy at times, and some of the characters appear less fleshed out than they should be. The acting is superb, but Amenabar was so determined that his message be understood, that he trimmed and edited the film in a way that made it less compelling than it could have been. Hypatia is the focus of the film and yet she's absent for long portions of it. Sure the other characters mention her, or her words weigh on their decisions, but you end up wanting the movie to be about her.
Those expecting chariot races, massive armies battling, or even gladiatorial battles are going to be disappointed. This is a period drama that focuses more on dialogue and ideas. The "action scenes" are one of mob violence and Amenabar films them as ugly and horrifying sequences. There are no action thrills to be found in Agora.
As with most historical films, there is plenty of debate on whether events occurred as portrayed in the film. The fact is when it comes to the ancient world, we've lost so many sources that we don't know for certain what happened during these events. Yes the film makers took liberties, but that's typical. But if this movie inspires you to find out more about this fascinating period of history, then it's a success. Just know that not everyone agrees with the version of the story told here.
Finally this movie is going to upset some people. Pagans, Jews and Christians are all shown in a very poor light. I've seen some comments about this movie bashing on one group or another. I didn't see that. Every group is guilty of something in this movie, even Hypatia. I don't think Amenabar is trying to attack one group or another. This movie is about humanity's dark side.
I can recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good historical drama, especially one that takes place in the ancient world. The movie as a whole is well made, the message behind it is powerful and the DVD itself is a solid package. Yes, its tragic, but we all need a little catharsis sometimes.
Hypatia and the film Agora are not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Director Introduction
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