Published Jun 10, 2010Probably best to state this before going any further: as far as I'm concerned, Rachel Weisz is Jesus Christ. When life throws me troubles, I look deep inside and ask, "What would Rachel Weisz do?" And then the world's a better place through misanthropy's shadows. So I'm biased, but considering Agora is based on the real life of Pagan philosopher Hypatia, in a time when the newest religion on the block (Christianity) was gaining momentum throughout the Roman Empire, the Jesus Christ analogy seems oddly astute.
It is the 4th century CE, and Hypatia (Weisz) is a teacher and astronomer in the famed Library of Alexandria, Egypt, uniting Pagans, Christians and Jews in their common love of the cosmos, while outside the Roman Empire is slowly being torn asunder by the clash of religion. While Hypatia's only love is the quest for knowledge, her slave Davus (Max Minghella, Art School Confidential) and her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac, Robin Hood) have both fallen in love with her, yet their attempts to curry favour are brutally rebuffed. In one unforgettable scene taken directly from Hypatia lore, she hands Orestes a cloth stained with her menstrual blood, informing him that there is no beauty to be found in carnal desires.
Civil unrest, bloody riots and balls-out medieval carnage erupt in the streets, and the Christians force the destruction of the Library, precipitating the Dark Ages that would last for another 1,300 years. Hypatia, working in exile, is close to discovering the nature of the heliocentric system and the elliptical orbits (in your face, Copernicus!) when the Christians in charge decide that she and all freethinking women are a threat to all things holy. Wow, not much has changed in the past 1,700 years, eh?
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), you might expect Agora to be comprised solely of the empty triumphal decadence of other sandal epics out there today (Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia). Indeed, we are presented with ornate temples, flounced dresses, soaring Egyptian art and ancient theatre antiquities, all bathed in golden ochre hues, while music that is considered "Eastern Ethnic" functions as the soundtrack. Even a few Google-Earth-esque shots are thrown in for good measure.
But Agora's piercing, honest appraisals of religion, and the important role of women, surprise, leading the narrative to an unpredictable and brilliantly realized denouement. Agora isn't an attack on Christianity, per se (although I quite liked it for that reason), but an attack on all belief-systems that encourage mindless obedience and servitude over questioning, independent thought, intelligence and dissent.
Not many filmmakers have the balls to do this, and Amenabar does so fearlessly, extolling and lacerating this subject matter with candidness. It's still a film of myth building. At times, it seems like an origin story ("Jesus was a Jew!" "But Jews killed Jesus!"). But Hypatia has the making of an entropy prophet that could easily blend in the modern world.
Weisz performs in intensely personal mode, with an evolving wonder and sadness of things, while Isaac shocks with his character's range and depth. Only Minghella disappoints, with his brooding, taciturn performance that reveals little.
Agora is a timely, visually arresting film not to be missed. (E1)