'Gladiator' for Intellectuals?
“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.
“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.
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”