The mother of all secular humanists fights a losing battle against freshly minted religious zealots in “Agora,” a visually imposing, high-minded epic that ambitiously puts one of the pivotal moments in Western history onscreen for the first time. Alejandro Amenabar’s first feature since “The Sea Inside” five years ago foreshadows the transformation of the Roman-dominated ancient world into Christian medieval times through the story of the much-celebrated astronomer and mathematician Hypatia in 4th-century Alexandria. This elaborately produced English-language Spanish production is consistently spectacular and features enough conflict and action to make it marketable, but a certain heaviness of style and lack of an emotional pulse could pose problems for mass audience acceptance, at least in the U.S.
“Agora” has more on its mind than most costume pictures, and most other films, for that matter — mankind’s place in the universe, the human need to understand the cosmos and the debate over the existence of a single deity. The central dramatic event is the sacking of Alexandria’s fabled library, the repository of “all the knowledge of the world” up to that time, and the parallel drawn between early-day Christian fundamentalists, who have just been legalized by the Roman Empire at the story’s start, and a certain other religion’s present-day fanatics is entirely clear. These issues and more echo throughout the story, which unfolds in a physical rendering of Alexandria that is vivid and extensive in its display of fabulous architecture, divide between the haves and have-nots and polyglot nature of one of the ancient world’s great melting pots.
The rational eye of this intellectual and religious hurricane is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who, as the daughter of the library’s head Theon (Michael Lonsdale), is permitted to teach an elite class of students. Devoting herself entirely to brainy pursuits, the serious beauty has sworn off men, although there are two young fellows who crave her, student Oreste (Oscar Isaac) and her personal slave Davus (Max Minghella), a closet Christian with a bright mind. Hypatia stiff-arms her admirers’ advances in no uncertain terms, which pushes Davus definitively into the arms of the believers.
At tale’s launch in 391 A.D., the most conspicuous Christians are the firebrand Parabolani cult, who rant in the public squares and even burn a prominent Roman. Led by the articulate, charismatic Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), they in time become the faith’s enforcers, intimidating regular citizens and converting the disenfranchised until they greatly outnumber their Roman rulers. Costumers have done a good job distinguishing this mob from everyone else by dressing them in gray-blue robes, and their group-think m.o. is at one point even made to resemble the behavior of ants.
Hypatia prefers to spend her time in the library, where scrolls of parchment are stuffed onto racks in a magnificent chamber, and pondering such matters as the movement of the Earth and the planetsand whether or not the Earth is flat or round .
Throughout the film, Amenabar pulls back from worldly pursuits to gaze upon the cosmos, and Alexandria’s and the world’s meager place within it. Still, two or three such visualizations would probably be enough, as the repetition weighs things down .
Strife between the Parabolani and the Jews is used as an excuse by rising cleric Cyril (Sammy Samir) to slaughter and drive out the Jews, and pic’s midway climax sees the Christian hordes overcoming Roman resistance to take the library and destroy its contents. This profoundly depressing development is tough to get over, but Hypatia, having made off with a few documents, persists in her research in more cloistered circumstances.
While the dramatic sweep of events gives “Agora” a natural momentum — under the increasingly dictatorial hand of Cyril, the Christians won’t give up until all the Romans are converted and opposition is erased — the personal dramas never really connect with the desired force. Partly, it’s because the two younger men proposed as potential matches for Hypatia aren’t remotely in her league; moreso, however, it’s because Hypatia is pretty remote herself, with her head in the intellectual clouds and oblivious to the political realities thrashing beneath her feet. Weisz goes a long way to drawing the viewer to her, but Amenabar and co-scenarist Mateo Gil haven’t entirely cracked her dramatization.
Minghella, whose character retreats far into the shadows during most of the second half, and Isaac, whose Oreste eventually becomes Roman prelate of Alexandria, have trouble emerging as strong figures. The actors playing heavies enjoy far greater opportunities, so the male cast standouts are Barhom as rabble-rouser Ammonius and Samir as the dictatorial head of the Alexandrian church.
Dramaturgical shortcomings aside, there is much in the picture to sustain sympathetic interest, including its dedicated historical perspective, intellectual seriousness and credible presentation of epic film elements that have often tripped up filmmakers in the past. Then there is the physical side of the production, which is genuinely impressive. Lensing entirely in Malta, Amenabar has fleshed out real locations with extensive sets and helpful (and largely undetectable) CGI extensions to provide a striking impression of a legendary ancient city. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas has mixed traditional Greco-Roman style buildings with Egyptian motifs and various interior decorative influences to palpably evoke a Mediterranean port city where many cultures convened. Gabriella Pescucci’s costumes colorfully support this approach, and Xavi Gimenez’s widescreen lensing captures it all with colorful mobility. Dario Marianelli’s score is rich, with occasional swells into the bombastic.