Film Review: Agora

Alejandro Amen&#225;bar&#8217;s hugely ambitious <i>Agora </i>coasts along on the strength of its ideas rather than its clunky plot mechanics.

Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar has never been one to shy away from a challenge and in his latest effort Agora, he presents himself with a doozy. Employing the style and conventions of ’50s-era biblical epics like Ben-Hur and The Robe—from the lavish sets to the international casts to the often stilted dialogue—the writer-director of such terrific films as Abre Los Ojos and The Sea Inside attempts to craft a serious and distinctly secular drama exploring Christianity’s early years.

Set in Alexandria in the fourth century, Agora unfolds at the crossroads of truth and fiction, as Amenábar works real-world figures like Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), one of the era’s leading scientists and philosophers, and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), Egypt’s prefect and a good friend of Hypatia, into a largely fictionalized narrative that nevertheless follows actual historical beats.

Like many of those old sword-and-bible Cinemascope chestnuts, Agora is divided into two acts. (Too bad modern distribution models don’t allow for an intermission, though the director tips his hat to that convention with a brief musical interlude halfway through.) The film’s first half largely revolves around a (fictional) love triangle between the fiercely independent Hypatia, the prideful Orestes—here recast as one of her students—and a quietly intelligent slave named Davus (Max Minghella), who worships Hypatia’s brains and beauty from afar. This personal drama plays out against a backdrop of larger social unrest; Christian prophets are beginning to openly mock Egypt’s pagan gods, which inspires much anger and hand-wringing at the school where Hypatia teaches, located within Alexandria’s great library.

Inevitably, tensions boil over and her colleagues feel compelled to take up arms to defend their faith. Unfortunately for them, they’ve failed to realize just how large the city’s Christian population has grown. Quickly outnumbered and overwhelmed, they fall back behind the library’s gates while their foes call for their blood.

To settle the dispute, Alexandria’s Roman overlords hand down a decree stating that the pagan professors and students may leave with their lives, while also awarding the Christians the right to pillage their place of study and worship. (Interestingly, this scenario is partly based on one of the most common explanations historians offer for the still-uncertain circumstances surrounding the destruction of Alexandria’s library.) Distraught, Hypatia flees with as many scrolls as she can carry while her beloved library is torn apart stone by stone.

The second act picks up a number of years later; Orestes has become both prefect and, like all of Alexandria’s high-ranking officials, a recent convert to Christianity, which is now the dominant faith of the region. Freed from Hypatia’s service in the wake of the sacking of the library, Davus has also converted and joined the ranks of the Parabolani, a vaguely militant brotherhood that performs important public services (like carting away the sick and the dead) while also enforcing rules handed down by the newly empowered clerics. As for Hypatia herself, she no longer teaches in a classroom, but continues to explore the biggest scientific and philosophical questions of the day, such as whether or not Earth truly is the center of the universe. She’s so wrapped up in her work, she doesn’t realize that she’s being fitted for a noose by Christian leaders who regard her as, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, a witch.

In his past films, Amenábar has excelled at creating well-rounded characters whose personal narratives are never lost amidst elaborate plot twists (Abre Los Ojos), horror movie trappings (The Others) or melodramatic flourishes (The Sea Inside). That’s why it’s such a surprise that the men and women that populate Agora seem so stiff and lifeless, like mannequins in a museum exhibit instead of living, breathing humans. Granted, they haven’t exactly been handed the strongest material to play; the script by Amenábar and Mateo Gil barely scratches the surface of these characters and is further marred by painfully awkward lines like “I feel like what you just said can be refuted, but I don’t know how,” and “Why are slaves never around when you need them?” The romantic-triangle storyline that’s meant to drive the movie’s overarching narrative is a non-starter as well, largely because Minghella and Isaac seem out of their depth wooing Weisz, the only actor who comes close to transcending the screenplay’s limitations.

And yet for all its dramatic clumsiness, Agora is an absorbing film, particularly if you have a strong interest in the ancient world and the origins of modern Western religion. The director’s fascination with his subject matter is palpable onscreen; one can picture Amenábar pouring over weighty historical tomes about Alexandria, Hypatia and the early Christian Church looking for details to pass along to his production designer—and the movie’s real hero—Guy Hendrix Dyas (whose previous credits include Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Brothers Grimm). Shot entirely on location in Malta on both existing structures as well as erected sets, Agora offers a convincing visual realism that makes up for some of the less-than-authentic touches contained in the script.

More than anything, though, the movie engages because it’s actually about something; even in the clunkiest moments, Amenábar is wrestling with compelling questions and ideas that are relevant to both the way we lived then and the way we live now. When does tolerance give way to tyranny? If Earth is not the center of the universe, does that make mankind less special? Can science and religion ever co-exist peacefully? Agora may be flawed as a narrative feature, but it is a first-class conversation starter.