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Max Minghella & Rachel Weisz in AGORA (Photo: Teresa Isasi/Newmarket Films)

Directed by
Alejandro Amenábar
Produced by
Fernando Bovaira & Álvaro Augustin
Written by Alejandro Amenábar & Mateo Gil
Released by Newmarket Films
Spain. 126 min. Not Rated
Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale & Rupert Evans

A sword and sandal epic for the thinking man, Chilean-born director Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora, released in Spain last year, had a rough time landing a U.S. distributor. (It eventually got tiny Newmarket Films). It’s no surprise why. A Spanish production filmed in English with a largely British cast, Agora is a full-gun broadside against religious militancy. The often-engrossing melodrama follows Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a cultivated fourth century pagan philosopher in an almost completely Christianized empire. Her father is the head of the (second) Library of Alexandria, which, in the film at least, is a combination pagan temple, the Library of Congress, and liberal arts college, where Hypatia teaches astronomy and mathematics to a gaggle of upper-class students, including the smitten aristocrat Orestes (Oscar Isaac, a Guatemalan putting on a British accent to blend in).

But the late Roman world of literary parties and gentlemanly (or rather, womanly) scientific hobbies is doomed. After the pagans overreact to thuggish Christians pelting vegetables at their idols in the agora (marketplace), they find themselves besieged in their library by virtually the whole town. (“I didn’t realize there were this many Christians,” one pagan marvels). Later, the library is burned to the ground, and the film, not completely successfully to be sure, jumps ahead in time to its sad second half and the final snuffing out of pagan culture.

Alas, many of the events are seen through the eyes of Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s slave. The fictional character, a pretty boy menial as imagined by Caravaggio, is the film’s least successful, a cipher needed to dramatize wider intellectual conflicts. He’s madly in love with Hypatia (as played by the beautiful Weisz, looking like a 19th century painter’s idea of the ancient mathematician, so who wouldn’t be?) Nonetheless, his lowly status shuts him out of her world, so he finds himself increasingly drawn to militant, but leveling, street Christianity.

Tellingly, the costume designers clad the Christians in drab, dark colors, and they often wear shawls or hoods. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but while the pagan Romans (and the one tolerant Christian) are by and large played by British thesps (as Anthony Lane recently put it, “The ancient world speaks with an Oxbridge accent”), the filmmakers cast swarthy, bearded, and mainly Arab actors as the Christians, either to stress their foreignness or perhaps to play on contemporary tensions to make viewers see Christianity in a new way. (Of note, the always charismatic Israeli-Arab Ashraf Barhom—he portrayed a would-be suicide bomber in Paradise Now a few years back—plays the fanatic leader of the Parabolani, a gang of thuggish Christian monks who act as Alexandria’s brutal morality police.)

Author Oakley Hall once said one of the greatest pleasures to be got from novels was seeing how people in the past lived. That’s certainly true for movies like this, and other than some CGI establishing shots of Alexandria that look like they were rendered on a Commodore 64, the film does a fine job bringing late Roman Egypt to life, reminding you how deadly serious a thrown stone could be, here the ancient world’s version of a bullet. But while filmmakers have gotten very good at recreating costumes and pottery, they’ve still rather poor at moral recreations. They have a bad habit of projecting backwards our disapproval of such things as slavery and subjection of women. (There’s a dramatically necessary, but completely inane scene where Davus trumps his betters by being a quick learner of cosmology.)

Conveniently for the filmmakers, none of Hypatia’s works survive, and we know her primarily through the letters of Synesius (her student and friend, here played by Rupert Evans and given short shrift). She apparently invented the hydrometer, but since no one knows what that is the filmmakers have her, improbably enough, discover heliocentrism. While it’s sort of fun to think through with Hypatia to that non-intuitive notion from scratch, it’s another of the filmmakers’ questionable decisions to smooth out her Neoplatonist weirdness. Similarly, they treat one of the most famous accounts of her life, scaring away a suitor with dirty menstrual rags, as a choice forced on her by patriarchal control and not the result of her own eccentric heathen ideals of virginal purity.

But really, the one sticking point is the music. Brutal street fights between pagans and Christians and a lengthy scene where vengeful monks slaughter the town’s Jews are often dulled by the soundtrack’s clichéd, vaguely Eastern, mournful chanting. It’s takes you out of the moment, like watching a comedy sitting next to someone who laughs too loudly at the jokes. Brendon Nafziger
May 28, 2010



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