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January 4, 2015

Agora

by Franz Patrick


Agora (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

As the Roman Empire inches closer toward the precipice of collapse at the end of fourth century A.D., the tension among Pagans, Christians, and Jews, too, inches toward a boiling point. Alexandria, one of Egypt’s most celebrated cities, is somehow able to resist the rippling effects of politics outside its walls—at least on the surface. When Christians insult Serapis, an Egyptian god, by throwing vegetables at his statue, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), a scholar and a mathematician as well as the director of the famed Library of Alexandria, decides that a full-scale attack is necessary to defend their god’s honor.

“Agora,” written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil, is interesting in that it seems to purposefully subvert its natural epic scale, the politics, for a smaller story which involves a sort of love triangle between Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella), her slave, and Hypatia and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), her student.

The root of the film is Hypatia, a philosopher and astronomer, and her unending quest to find an answer as to why, if Earth really did revolve around the sun in a circle, the sun seemed closer or farther depending on the season. Although we know the answer she is desperately looking for, we remain interested in her quest for answers. Dialogue involving geocentrism and heliocentrism aside, it is captivating because Weisz has a way of drawing us into the loneliest and coldest rooms of her character’s mind.

She looks breathtakingly beautiful as the character but she is wise not to rest on her physicality. She employs her eyes and limbs to convey wisdom and curiosity as well as what might happen if an imbalance threatened the mind of an intellectual. The best scenes does not compose of glorious aerial and ground shots of men hunting other men and women with weapons fighting over conflicting beliefs but the interactions among Hypatia and the two young men who want to be with her.

Davus and Orester have never met anyone like her and so they respect her. The screenplay allows us to understand with clarity why they wish to be with Hypatia. I enjoyed the romantic angle not because she will not let them into her world but because she is unable to; the questions about the cosmos are more important to her than being with a man. However, I wished that Davus and Orestes are as fleshed out as Hypatia outside of their feelings toward her.

Perhaps the lack of character depth involving the two can be attributed to the time jump about half-way through. While necessary in order to move the story forward and for us to experience the power behind the repercussions of unwise decisions, it does not excuse Davus and Orestes not leaving much to do or say when Hypatia is absent from the equation.

“Agora,” directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is proud to be about ideas and yet it is unafraid to show the violence of clash among disparate faiths. The set and relics are very convincingly Egyptian, so detailed, and when such objects are destroyed, I watched in horror. I felt as though I was ensconced in the world that the characters inhabit.

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