Searing tragedy of intolerance reduced to melodrama in ‘Agora’ |
There’s a fascinating, heartbreaking, infuriating true story at the center of Agora, a sumptuous drama of ancient Alexandria from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. But even as the female scholar protagonist lectures her students that every system in the universe must revolve around a center or it will collapse, Amenábar clutters up his narrative with so much bombast and portent, it’s own center finally cannot hold. It’s too bad, because the seeds of genuine tragedy lurk in the story of Hypatia. Daughter of a mathematician in fourth-century Alexandria, Egypt, and herself a famed lecturer on mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, she was an independent woman with a questing mind trapped in an era of escalating religious warfare. And while Amenábar’s methods are often heavy handed in telling her story, he does manage to limn a chilling portrait of the sheer brutality of faith-based absolutism.
As any crossword solver can tell you, “agora” is the Greek word for marketplace, or town square, the center of public life. At the edge of the square, the Alexandria Museum (and its fabled library) is an oasis of Hellenic learning and culture at the outskirts of the declining Roman Empire, where Hypatia (the lovely, grounded Rachel Weisz) lectures her rapt male students on the “philosophy” of scientific observation. It’s also the principal place of worship where the town fathers pay obeisance to the Egyptian gods. Meanwhile, out in the agora, Christians recently granted the right to live unmolested in the city provoke increasingly violent exchanges with the “pagan” Alexandrians.
Hypatia’s devoted students include the charming Orestes (Oscar Isaacs), who wants to marry her, but for whom she refuses to give up her scientific pursuits, and the scholarly Christian, Synesius (Rupert Evans). Moonstruck too is Hypatia’s slave and body servant, Davus (Max Minghella), who pines in secret for his beautiful mistress. Hypatia tells her brotherhood of scholars, “More things unite us than divide us,” but when Christian bullies start tearing down pagan statues in the street, and the non-Christians fight back, the resulting slaughter spells the end of her idyllic citadel of learning and tolerance. Driven to take refuge behind the library walls, the non-Christians are later escorted safely out, but the Christian mob is allowed to storm and ransack the library and destroy all its precious, “blasphemous” scroll books.
A few years later, the pagan gods are gone, but the upstart Christians and orthodox Jews are busy stoning each other in public places. Orestes is the governing Prefect, trying to maintain an uneasy peace between these factions, but the real power is wielded by the Christian Bishop, Cyril (Sami Samir). Davus has become a Christian foot soldier, lured by the ideal of charity to the poor and disenfranchised. Learning is out of fashion (the Christians believe the world is flat, with Heaven resting on top), but Hypatia continues studying and teaching under Orestes’ protection—which puts her in opposition to Cyril’s agenda for a male-dominated, faith-based society.
Agora succeeds in showing the futility of religious warfare. We can’t always tell the factions apart when they clash in the streets; Amenábar’s perspective swoops back to a god’s-eye-view of tiny ants hacking each other to pieces. (He favors dazzling tracking shots that begin out in the placidly-circling cosmos, then zoom in on the human action.) Hypatia declines to convert to Christianity, not because she clings to the old gods, but because, as a scholar, she can’t bring herself to join a faith that won’t allow her to question what she believes.
But while the look of the film recalls the muted, stately beauty of Roman frescoes, Amenábar’s characters and relationships never pull their weight. Orestes and Hypatia are plausible friends, but the unrequited love the script keeps insisting on never resonates. Neither do we feel the urgency of Davus’ feeling for her; he’s as much Amenábar’s tool as he was as a slave, popping up now and then to express scowling doubt over his newfound “faith,” then disappearing until the action needs him again. Worse, Amenábar wraps it all up in an exhausting musical soundtrack full of Sturm und Drang and funereal wailing, reducing tragedy to the stuff of melodrama.
★★1/2 (out of four)
With Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, and Oscar Isaacs. Written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar. A Newmarket Films release. Not rated. 127 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>