13 June 2010

Review: "Agora"

I feel guilty. I invited a friend to see Agora, a film I wanted to see and one about which she knew nothing, and when the lights came on we were both left dissatisfied. It is a historical film and I expected the characters to be better developed. The male characters, integral to the tension in the film, were poorly conceived and there were times I felt lost and questioned their actions because the screenplay withheld so many important pieces of information. Even Rachel Weisz, an incredibly talented Oscar-winning actress, suffered because her character was not given sufficient room to grow. Rachel Weisz has only had starring roles in a select few films, but her performance in The Constant Gardener (2005), which won her the award for Best Supporting Actress, has endeared me to her so much that I can forgive her. Her role in The Brothers Bloom, a severely underrated comedy, is enough proof, in her post-Oscar films, that she is a tremendous actress. Agora is a 2009 film by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, who wrote and directed The Others, a 2001 film that starred Nicole Kidman. Agora takes place in Roman Egypt in the late fourth century when religious and social unrest threaten the future of the city of Alexandria. Agora struggles because it has not decided whether it wants to be a social commentary or a love story. The film fuses both elements together and has created a chaotic mess that confused me. Too much is left for interpretation throughout the film and eventually the characters' actions become questionable because the film has given the audience no background.

Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia, a teacher and philosopher and daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale), the director of the Mauseum of Alexandria. The Mauseum housed the Library of Alexandria, which was one of the greatest and most important libraries of the ancient world. Alexandria is controlled by the pagan Roman Empire but soon the Christians start contesting Roman rule. At the start of Agora Hypatia's students include Davus (Max Minghella), her slave, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who publicly professes his unrequited love for Hypatia, and Synesius (Rupert Evans). The pagans, believing that they will be protected by the gods, ambush the Christians and find themselves outnumbered. A decree from the Roman Empire announces that Christians will be allowed to enter the Library of Alexandria and the pagans begin to flee, trying to escape with as many scrolls from the library as they can carry. The Christians storm the library and destroy the remaining documents. Davus, unable to profess his love for Hypatia, joins the Christians as a means of gaining his freedom. Agora jumps ahead and Orestes has converted to Christianity and become prefect of the city. Hypatia, now forbidden to teach, spends her time investigating the Earth's relation to the sun. Many ridicule her for believing the Earth is round. The Christians have now come into conflict with the Jews and Cyril (Sami Samir), leader of the Christians, believes that Hypatia has too much control over Orestes and demands that he denounce her as a witch. Synesius, now the Bishop of Cyrene, attempts to help Hypatia in his role as a religious figure if she will be baptized as a Christian. All the men in Hypatia's life try to save her from death but she is too consumed with finding the truth.

Agora is very heavy on the historical aspect of the religious conflict during this time, but the film tries too hard to force a love triangle between Hypatia, Orestes and Davus. The film is a failure if this love triangle is supposed to carry the entire film. Orestes and Davus are not developed as characters and their affection for Hypatia is seen through furtive glances and supposed innuendo. The screenplay is simple at best and that does not work for a film for this scale. Though the screenplay is weak in terms of dialogue and character development I must say that the actors do a remarkable job. Rachel Weisz is wonderful as Hypatia and it is clear that she is a woman who values philosophy above carnal love. Todd McCarthy, the renowned (but recently fired) film critic for Variety, called the film a high-minded epic. I believe that Amenabar had visions of grandeur but ultimately fell flat. The religious conflict between the pagans, the Christian and the Jews was not compelling. I did like that the film often withdrew from the city of Alexandria and the camera panned out to a view of the Earth. It acted as a symbol of Hypatia's lifelong goal of discovering the Earth's position in the universe. Agora had so much potential, but does it fall short because it should have focused on Hypatia and her philosophical and mathematical quest? Or should the film have looked at the religious conflict and put less of an emphasis on Hypatia and her suitors? I will leave that to you to decide. I left with respect for Rachel Weisz's performance but I was ultimately disappointed by the lack of focus.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

1 comment:

  1. A very thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. As far as the love triangle goes, Amenabar was hampered by the historical Hypatia who, indeed, was known for her chaste behavior in pursuit of NeoPlatonist philosophical ideals. Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (the Library thing didn't happen like that and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. Don't go to the movies for 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 (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com) - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.