In the 4th century A.D. the lovely philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, "The Lovely Bones") taught within the magnificent library of Alexandria. Her class was a mix of pagans, Christians and foreigners, and included her own slave, Davus (Max Minghella, "Art School Confidential"). Orestes (Oscar Isaac, "Robin Hood"), who would later become the Imperial Prefect, tried to woo his teacher, a woman who valued academia and independence above all. All their lives would be changed when Olympius (Richard Durden, "The Jacket"), learning that the Christians were jeering at their statues of the pagan gods, sent the pagans to attack them in the "Agora."
Cowriter (with Mateo Gil, "Open Your Eyes," "The Sea Inside")/director Alejandro Amenábar ("The Others," "The Sea Inside") has made an incredibly moving and current film about religious intolerance and the clash between faith vs. science in ancient times. This Spanish production blows away many of its recent Hollywood counterparts with an amazing visual design featuring flawless matte work and astounding shots from the heavens. Although the film's reception has been decidedly mixed, I am going to start thumping my tub for Rachel Weisz's inclusion in this year's Best Actress list, at the very least. She, and Amenábar's film, moved me to tears.
We're introduced to Hypatia as she considers gravity, her concept of which leads to discussions as to whether the earth is flat or round, whether it is earth or the sun which moves and the shape of orbital paths, the circle highly regarded as a perfect figure. She is taken aback when Orestes declares his love for her at the public theater, and she firmly turns him away later in a class. She is also astonished to find that Davus, who is secretly in love with her, has made an orbital model which she champions before her students, leading to lively debate. Her father and teacher, Theon (Michael Lonsdale, "Munich," "The Last Mistress"), has very modern ideas about female independence, but when a crucifix is discovered in his abode, the female slave who finally owns up to Christianity is beaten, much to Hypatia's dismay. Here is a pagan woman whose liberal views could teach the religious zealots around her a thing or two.
One of those is Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom, "The Kingdom," "Clash of the Titans"), a man who inspires many showing his faith by walking over hot coals. But, in true Christ-like fashion, he also causes a pagan to burn to death to prove his point (the Christians here are strongly paralleled to today's Taliban). Davus, however, finds himself swayed by the man's words. After the bloody clash in the agora, the pagans lock themselves within their temple, but a ruling exonerating the Christians also give them access to the library. knowing that the Christians will seek to obliterate all things pagan, Hypatia desperately tries to save as many scrolls as possible. In so doing, her words to Davus are sharp, a tipping point driving him to the side of the Christians. In his confusion, though, Davus goes to the beaten Hypatia and grasps her, physically showing his pent up desire. She, in turn, frees him. The scene is very well played (Minghella really comes into his own with this role) and marks the end of Part 1.
From the heavens, we zoom down to Alexandria (Amenábar uses high speeds to depict humanity as a swarm of ants) for Part 2, now many years later. The religious climate has been complicated by the arrival of Jews in Alexandria. While Orestes is now Imperial Prefect, the Bishop Cyril (Sami Samir, "Munich") is Patriarch, a Christian political force to be reckoned with. Cyril sees Hypatia, whom Orestes counts on as an advisor, as ungodly and begins to move against her.
Weisz is extraordinarily good in this film. Her Hypatia lights from within as her questions lead her to new and perplexing answers. She makes us see the burning for knowledge within her and Amenábar gives her a few set pieces where she can physically act out her theories which are not only elucidating for the audience but a creative way to make theoretical talk visual. The woman is also ahead of her time in treating all kindly and with equality, although the actress stops short of making her a saint (another character is ironically sainted at film's end). But its not just Weisz that makes this film work. The entire cast is terrific beginning with Oscar Isaac who takes Orestes from humiliated lover to the elder statesman who continues to love the same woman from a different place. Max Minghella gives the audience its POV into the Christian mind set and the young actor, like his former mistress, continues to question his believes and the words of Ammonius, which frequently go against the teachings of Christ. Sami Samir is deliciously unlikable as the holy man who uses his position to manipulate himself into power and Ashraf Barhom is his streetwise counterpart. Lonsdale carries himself with a sad dignity.
Purists may find that Amenábar has taken too many liberties with history, but many of the events he depicts are possibilities in an unclear history. The character of Davus is a device he uses wisely and if Amenábar chooses to romanticize Hypatia's horrific death, it's a choice befitting his themes and the incredible grace endowed by Weisz. "Agora" is a thought provoking film featuring one of the best acting ensembles of the year. The production is so striking, you'll believe you've actually seen one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
“Agora’ is an elegantly done compilation of myth and fact to show the sacking of the great library of Alexandria, Egypt where one thousand years of knowledge was destroyed by Christians in the 5th Century. Rachel Weisz stars as scholar and philosopher Hypatia, whose intellect is only outdone by her beauty. She is the equal of any of the male rulers of pagan Roman Alexandria and teacher to their sons. However, her greatest obsession is the universe and how it works.
This may sound kind of boring, but director and co-writer Alejandro Amenabar (with Mateo Gil) brings in other historical events, including the rise of the Christians to overthrow their pagan rulers, the burning of the library of Alexander and the persecution of Jews. “Agora” is a lavishly wrought historical drama that combines events spanning decades to give us a concentrated, coherent story set in the year 411.
Rachel Weisz, in a star confirming performance, is joined by Max Minghella as Davus, a slave who is attracted to the freedom offered by Christianity but is in love with his mistress, Hypatia. Davus’s inner turmoil, though, takes a back seat to the outer turmoil erupting in the city. Alexandria’s Roman leaders face the increasing ire of the Christians (who are particularly un-Christian). Under the command of their power-hungry, blood thirsty bishop, Cyril (menacingly played by Sami Samir), the fanatical mob uses siege, bloody violence and murder to force their will and anyone in their way is slaughtered.
All of the violence and mayhem is leavened with the Hypatia’s personal relationships. She adores her father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), has a platonic friendship with Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who remains devoted to her even as he rises higher and higher in the Roman aristocracy and, then, there is Davus. And, Hypatia’s thirst for knowledge and the secrets of the universe are pervasive through the story, taking a very feminist stand. Amenabar brings these elements – historical and personal – into fine relief. The production design and CGI are seamlessly joined and Amenabar uses some out of context, but fascinating, devices – a satellite view of the Earth centered on Alexandria (the perspective of God or gods?) and a single, quirky camera shot (you will know it when you see it.). Production values are top notch throughout.
On a negative note: A film about a pagan woman philosopher in Egypt trying to solve the mysteries of the solar system is going to be a tough sell. I’m not sure what audience the filmmakers are aiming at with its strong femme tale, historical drama and religious actioner. This could be a problem. However, if you love films you should see this one. I give it an A-.
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