Directed by: Alejandro Amenábar
Premise: Set in Alexandria in 381 A.D., the film tells the story of philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) amid a period of religious and political upheaval.
What Works: Agora is a film that uses the past to comment upon the present and it does that very well. This is a film with very dense character relationships similar to the kind of richness accomplished over the course of a season in a dramatic television program like Deadwood or The Tudors and it manages to compact that density into a two-and-a-half hour film without sacrificing depth. That density is achieved by effectively crisscrossing thematic strands such as the conflict between faith and reason, the search for identity, and the way people alter their beliefs or behaviors to maintain a sense of belonging. Agora also includes a variety of subplots that the film mostly balances. Something Agora does especially well is exploring the roots of religious and ethnic fanaticism. At the macro level, the story dramatizes how groups are characterized and driven by their loudest and most uncompromising advocates. This is both mirrored and contrasted by some of the interpersonal relationships on the micro level of the story. This conflict is shown most clearly in the story of the lead protaganist, played by Rachel Weisz. As Hypatia of Alexandria attempts to continue her work the political background is increasingly unstable due to religious and ethnic divisions. Her increasing inability to conduct her work and to even function socially in society is an effective barometer of the deterioration of life in the city and gives the film a way to effectively dramatize and visualize it. The supporting characters face challenges and dilemmas that give depth to the themes and allow the film to approach the causes and effects of the political strife from multiple dimensions. Max Minghella plays one of Hypatia’s slaves and as he converts to Christianity his devotion to his new identity and his love for his mistress cause him considerable conflict. In a parallel storyline, Oscar Isaac plays a politician who attempts to appease the ever burdensome demands of the city’s religious and ethnic factions. The choices both male characters are forced to make impact Hypatia’s storyline while also further complicating the film’s themes. In the end, Agora is not particularly hopeful but it is truthful, and the downbeat qualities of the conclusion are earned. The film does not provide the kind of cynical ending in which the heroes are masochistically punished to make the audience feel bad about themselves. Instead, the filmmakers behind Agora reach the logical conclusion of the film’s portrayal of an increasingly fractured and radicalized community.
What Doesn’t: Viewers should be aware that Agora is a fictionalized version of history. All historical dramatizations are fictionalized; this is a necessary tool in telling that kind of a story. The value of historical stories is in the film’s use of the past to allow us to understand the present. In that respect, Agora does a great job. But viewers should differentiate between the broader thematic truths that this film exposes and the specific historical fictionalizations.
DVD extras: Director’s introduction, documentary, deleted scenes, storyboards, and a photo gallery.
Bottom Line: Agora is a very good historical drama. Although it is long, the length is earned and its exploration of extremism and the suffocation of reason by religious fanaticism make it much more substantive than a lot of other historical films.
Episode: #343 (June 12, 2011)