Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

Review: ‘Agora’

Gladiator’ for Intellectuals?

Rachel Weisz stars as Greek astronomer Hypatia in

Credit: Newmarket Films

Above: Rachel Weisz stars as Greek astronomer Hypatia in "Agora."

“Agora” (opening July 30 at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Theaters) looks to religious zealots in the 4th Century in the hopes of drawing some parallels to contemporary times.

“Agora” opens in 391 A.D. You immediately get the feeling you’re about to watch a history lesson. A long title card sets the scene and a satellite map lays out the geography before zooming into Alexandria, the ancient Egyptian city under Roman rule where our tale is set. It’s a tumultuous and transitional time for the Roman Empire. Newly emerging and rebellious Christian factions challenge the existing Roman rule. If you know history there are no surprises here. The central dramatic moment here is the sacking of Alexandria’s fabled library, the repository of “all the knowledge of the world” up to that time. It’s an event that has not – as far as I can remember – been the focus of a feature film before.

At the center of all this turmoil is the celebrated astronomer and mathematician Hypatia (Rachel Weisz). We sense almost immediately that she is too bright and rational to come out a winner amongst all the extremists populating the film. Hypatia, the daughter of the library’s head Theon (Michael Lonsdale), has a thrist and passion for knowledge, and the kind of burning curiosity that all good scientists possess. She is so devoted to science and teaching that she swears off men. But this intellectual beauty still draws the devoted attention two young men from opposite sides of the political spectrum: a student named Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and her personal slave Davus (Max Minghella), who hides his Christianity.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Newmarket Films

Rachel Weisz in her classroom in "Agora"

“Agora” is ambitious. It has a lot on its mind as it contemplates God, science, the desire for knowledge, man’s need to define his place in the universe, and the continual debate and battle between the secular and religious. But having a lot on its mind and being a good movie are two different things. This is Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar’s first film since his award-winning “The Sea Inside” five years ago. He works very hard to recreate Alexandria. Sometimes I felt as though I was in some elaborate 3D rendering of the ancient city. But this attention to visual detail and architecture ends up shortchanging the dramatic and emotional side of the story. So instead of getting a compelling and narratively engaging film we end up with something with something more like an impressive but dry history lesson.

This English-language Spanish production has an epic feel and scope but it never feels truly lived in. Weisz tries to invest Hypatia with the spark of passion but it’s not enough to lift this film out of the realm of historical re-enactment. There’s plenty of fighting and action as Christians take to the streets and riot but without emotional investment in the characters these scenes reveal spectacle but build little tension or drama.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Newmarket Films

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in "Agora"

The film nabbed seven Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscar) but the recognition appears to be more for the scale of the production than it’s actual accomplishments. If you want a history lesson or if you want a kind of DK visual guide to ancient Roman history, then “Agora” will likely satisfy you. But if you want something more or if you want some artistry thrown in with your history then you are likely to be disappointed.

“Agora” (unrated and in English despite being a Spanish production) tries hard but like Hypatia its high ambitions and intellectual ideas may fail to excite or win over the masses. My friend suggested the film be re-titled “Christian Behaving Badly” and maybe that slightly sensational, reality TV sounding title would draw more people. For me, I began to wonder if the term “agoraphobia” (taken from the Greek word “agora” meaning marketplace) could be reapplied to mean not just the fear of public places but also a fear of dry, sterile historical re-enactments.

Companion viewing: “Spartacus,” “Galileo,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “300”


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Your curated weekly guide to local arts and culture in San Diego, from Arts Calendar Editor Julia Dixon Evans, delivered to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.