DVD Review: Underrated ‘Agora’ Captures Drama of Warring Ideas

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CHICAGO – When A.O. Scott described this film as “Passion of the Christ” for liberals, I couldn’t help finding his catchy summation to be awfully glib. “Agora” is a film about ideas, whereas “Passion” was merely about Mel Gibson’s masochism. Director Alejandro Amenábar has crafted a fascinating and haunting historical epic that never exploits its violent subject matter.

The film is set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and centers on the moment when Christianity changed from secular to theocratic. The year is 391 A.D. Pagans and Christians hold public debates that quickly turn violent. Heretic heckling soon turns to savage bloodletting. In the midst of such fanatic madness, the first victim proves to be common sense and grounded intelligence, which are gracefully embodied by Hypatia, a highly respected female scholar specializing in astronomy and philosophy.

HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 4.5/5.0
DVD Rating: 4.5/5.0

Hypatia is played by the radiant Rachel Weisz, whose career appears to have come full circle since 1999’s “The Mummy,” where she played an intelligent yet clumsy librarian in Egypt. There’s nothing clumsy about Hypatia, though she does prove to be equally helpless when attempting to prevent the destruction of a library. After an army of disgruntled Pagans slaughter Christians in cold blood, the Christians fight back by destroying a legendary Pagan library housing priceless records of knowledge. Earlier, Hypatia is seen momentarily halting the Pagan’s newly waged holy war, arguing to the angry multitudes that they are being encouraged to become vile murderers. It’s worth contemplating how Hypatia would’ve reacted to a tea party rally. Weisz is careful to hold her reserved character’s emotions in moderation, exuding flashes of exuberance whenever she is on the verge of a breakthrough.

Rachel Weisz stars in Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora.
Rachel Weisz stars in Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora.
Photo credit: Lionsgate Entertainment

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Hypatia would’ve simply been portrayed as a one-dimensional saint. Yet “Agora” is too good and too complex for such commonplace caricatures. The theme of altering one’s perception to achieve growth is reflected in every aspect of the production, and is often the key to solving each character’s dilemma. Hypatia is admired by her servant Davus (Max Minghella), but she can’t view him as anything more than a slave. This leads Davus toward Christianity, inspired by its belief in charity, and the work of a brotherhood named the Parabalani, led by Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom).

No religious group in the film is demonized as the villain, though they all appear to blur together, as their leaders struggle to monopolize power over the population. “Agora” is in the great tradition of provocative spiritual cinema such as Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of Carl Sagan’s “Contact.” Hypatia shares several striking similarities with the heroine of Sagan’s novel, who was also incapable of blindly following scripture without questioning it. The script honors Hypatia’s story by refusing to simplify it, painting instead a portrait of the turbulent battles over beliefs that have plagued the centuries, and are still alive and well today. This picture is yet another exquisite genre piece from Amenábar, who also helmed the splendid thriller, “The Others,” and the stunning drama, “The Sea Inside.” He has a knack for exploring familiar subject matter in ways that are fresh, riveting, and wholly unforgettable.

Agora was released on DVD on Oct. 19, 2010.
Agora was released on DVD on Oct. 19, 2010.
Photo credit: Lionsgate Entertainment

“Agora” is presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and includes a wealth of enlightening extras. Amenábar’s excellent commentary is in Spanish with English subtitles, and reveals which aspects of the film are real and invented. He says that several of the characters’ faces were modeled after Fayum portraits, and describes why Malta was the best place to shoot for the production. Initially, the picture was born out of Amenábar’s first experience of glancing at the Milky Way, and the filmmaker cites Carl Sagan as his mentor. Sagan believed that if the Pagan library hadn’t been destroyed, mankind may have been able to colonize Mars in his lifetime. The film was largely inspired by Sagan’s 1980 miniseries, “Cosmos,” as well as the work of novelist Umberto Eco, who famously stated that “when something is written down, it tends to acquire a sacred quality over the centuries,” even if that quality isn’t deserved. It was Amenábar’s goal to not take sides, but rather explore the good and bad aspects of each character. He also greatly toned down the violence of a climactic death scene that, if filmed with historical accuracy, could’ve made “Passion” look restrained by comparison.

An hour-long making-of documentary includes interviews with the cast and crew, such as Amenábar’s frequent collaborator/producer Fernando Bovaira. This project marked the first time Amenábar hired a composer to do the soundtrack. He chose Dario Marianelli (“Atonement”) because of his ability to score Hollywood productions “with European restraint.” Amenábar and Marianelli made sure that the film’s moral complexity extended to its score, which conveys the brutality and compassion of various characters, such as the Parabalani. Barhom is a devout Christian, and didn’t want to make a film that would be offensive to his faith. Co-writer Mateo Gil discusses the history of Hypatia, and defends the probability of the script’s conceit that she could’ve discovered an ellipse a millenium before Copernicus. The disc also includes extensive storyboard and photo galleries, as well as ten minutes of deleted scenes, featuring a poetic alternate opening reminiscent of “Contact,” as the camera glides above the Milky Way.

‘Agora’ is released by Lionsgate Entertainment and stars Rachel Weisz, Oscar Isaac, Max Minghella, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Richard Durden and Sami Samir. It was written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil and directed by Alejandro Amenábar. It was released on Oct. 19, 2010. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

FLJustice's picture

Very thoughtful review

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and am looking forward to the DVD with its extras. It was a beautifully shot movie addressing an important modern theme. I felt there were a few historical distortions. The Great Library of Alexandria didn’t end as Amenabar depicted and Synesius wasn’t such a jerk. However, that’s what artists do. I don’t go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

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