Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar does not make films that fit neatly into any particular genre; he is a master at unsettling audiences’ expectations. Agora, which opens today, is no exception, morphing from a sword and scandals romance into an exploration of faith, reason and the fragility of civilized values.
Amenabar’s atmospheric The Others (2001) carefully upended the conventions of the haunted-house movie with a thoughtful appreciation of how perceptions and expectation can create a sense of dread far more intense than jack-in-the-box apparitions and buckets of ectoplasm or gore. This was followed by The Sea Inside (2004), a film about a quadriplegic’s nearly three decade fight for the right to die. The film was mainly about the thoughts of the central character and the nexus between life, death and the spirit world.
With Agora, the director revisits these themes in the unexpected guise of a costume drama set in late 4th-century Roman-occupied Egypt. The historical background is the rise of Christianity and the retreat of paganism, and the film develops into something that comes close to a diatribe against Christian faith and a paean of praise for the scientific spirit, as represented by the various schools of Greek philosophers.
Photo courtesy of CatchPlay
This conflict is enacted through the life of Hypatia, an historical if shadowy figure who was remarkable for being one of very few women to achieve distinction as a cosmological theorist and philosopher. She is played by the equally remarkable actress Rachel Weisz, whose presence is the only thing that holds this rambling mix of simplistic history and barroom polemic together.
The story opens with Hypatia teaching a roomful of young students, three of whom are more than uncommonly enamored of their beautiful science teacher. There is Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a young nobleman who is not shy of making his feelings public, Synesius (Rupert Evans), a young Christian who eventually puts aside his scientific studies for advancement in the church, and Davus (Max Minghella), a slave in Hypatia’s household who has scientific talent.
Weisz does an excellent job in portraying a beautiful woman uninterested in her own beauty, even as it is abundantly evident why the men around her are unable to resist her charms. Unfortunately, while Isaac and Minghella work overtime to portray their ardor, it never gets beyond lugubrious languishings. The lack of any real chemistry within the student/teacher relationship weakens Agora, giving it a loose, episodic structure that simply struggles to put the building blocks of the story into place.
This is a pity, for Agora is full of ideas and has a good stab at portraying the excitement and confusion of early astronomers in their efforts to bring into harmony their theories of mathematics and the motion of the stars. This sense of scientific exhilaration is pitted against the non-rational faith behind the ambitious Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria’s growing political power. The Christians are portrayed very much as the villains of the story, though Amenabar is careful to show that pagans and Jews were equally prone to committing atrocities.
The historical Cyril, while actively persecuting non-Christians, was perfectly happy to act violently against Christians who stood in the way of his ambition, but for all that, Amenabar’s portrayal of a man who was numbered among the great doctors of the church and subsequently canonized as little better than a thug diminishes the complexity of the political battle between the church, the nominally Christian administration, and the interests of various religious groups.
Against such a weakly realized background, Weisz is able to endow her character with considerable depth, first as a woman who rejects the standard feminine roles of her time, and then as a rationalist who sees all she holds most dear being swept up in the ecstasy of religious faith.
Her former students and former suitors abandon her ideas in favor of advancement within the emerging political or religious establishments, even if they don’t altogether abandon her as a woman. This in some ways is the ironic twist that provides a glimpse of the complex ideas that Amenabar is trying to express about the fragility of scientific achievement against the more histrionic appeal of the emotions.
Directed by: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Hypatia), Max Minghella (Davus), Oscar Isaac (Orestes), Ashraf Barhom (Ammonius), Richard Durden (Olympius), Michael Lonsdale (Theon) and Rupert Evans (Synesius)
Running time: 127 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
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