Tuesday, November 16, 2010

DVD Review: Agora

Agora **
Directed by:
Alejandro Amenábar.
Written By: Alejandro Amenábar & Mateo Gil.
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Hypatia), Max Minghella (Davus), Oscar Isaac (Orestes), Ashraf Barhom (Ammonius), Michael Lonsdale (Theon), Rupert Evans (Synesius), Richard Durden (Olympius), Sami Samir (Cyril), Manuel Cauchi (Theophilus), Homayoun Ershadi (Aspasius), Oshri Cohen (Medorus), Harry Borg (Prefect Evagrius), Charles Thake (Hesiquius), Yousef 'Joe' Sweid (Peter).

Agora is a movie that is so infatuated with ideas that it hardly has time for a plot. It is an historical epic, set in 391 AD in Egypt, with the Roman empire on the verge of collapse, with Christainity becoming more and more prevalent and challenging the Pagan normality, and where Jews were still slaves. Yet, this is not a typical epic in that there isn’t much action, the line between good and evil is murky at best (everyone seems to be wrong at points in the film). It also tries very hard to draw parallels to modern times. It tries and tries and tries so hard to do all of these things, that it really doesn’t end up doing any of them particularly well.

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is the rarest of things in ancient Egypt – a female philiosopher and mathematician. Her father (Michael Lonsdale) holds an important place in Alexandria as curator of its library – whose mission was to collect all of human knowledge. Scholars travelled from everyone to see it, to study there, and to donate their own scrolls to the collection. When the film opens, Hypatia is holding class, teaching that the earth cannot possibly be the center of the universe – a radical idea at the time. She has three students that are drawn to her – the slave Davis (Max Minghella), who is Jewish, and not really a student but her servant, the pagan Orestes (Oscar Issac), who makes no secret how he feels about her, and the Christain Synesisus (Ruper Evans) who is torn between his faith and the ideas Hypatia advocates.

The movie really is about the clash between these different religions and each of them with science. The Pagans and the Christains are both so convinced that they are right, and the other side wrong, that they feel that whoever disagrees with them must be evil, and as such, be converted or put to death (this is where that allegory about Muslim terrorists comes in). Neither side pays much attention to the Jews – they are merely slaves, and as such don’t matter, but they see each other as mortal enemies. Christainity was banned, but has recently garnered more power, and now seems to be taking power over themselves. Instead of accepting the Pagans, they do exactly what they did – and ban their religion. And for some reason, they want to destroy the library as well, and by extension, all human knowledge that they don’t agree with, because it isn’t Christain.

I have probably made Agora sound like a better movie than it actually is. I admired its visual look – which is meticulously crafted by director Alejandro Amenabar, and I love the clash of ideas that the film strives for. Yet, someone, Agora was a lifeless movie to me. There really is no subtely here at all – no real complexities to any of the characters. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia not so much as a woman who had to suppress her sexual desires (which I think they were trying for), because if she got married, she wouldn’t be able to use her mind anymore, but instead like a woman who doesn’t have them in the first place. She reminded me of Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, my current favorite sitcom. He’s someone who just cannot understand human interaction, and has no real sexual desires himself – and that’s kind of what Hypatia is as well. She seems to not grasp the enormity of what is going on around her until it is far too late. The other characters are even less defined that she is.

There comes a point where mere ambition is not enough. Agora has heedless ambition – a film that tries to accomplish so much, and do so in a completely different way than most historical epics, where the Christains are painted as saints, and the Pagans are scary outsiders and cruel masters. It tries to deal with the conflict between religions, and between religion and science, and pull it all towards the modern day. It tries so hard to do so much that it becomes a confused jumble of a film that really doesn’t accomplish anything. Too bad – there is so much good stuff here that a great movie should have been made out of it. But it wasn’t.

1 comment:

  1. A very thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. The film was beautifully shot and a bit uneven. Amenabar also distorted some history in service to his art (the Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. I go to the movies for entertainment, not history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.