Alejandro Amenabar is one of my favorite directors (The Sea Inside, The Others, Abre Los Ojos), so, obviously, I had made up my mind that “Agora” would be awesome too. I did not know what to expect, since the only trailer I managed to watch seemed to suggest something epic, in the lines of Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” or, maybe “Troy”, yet, no epic scenes were shown. I had the feeling the scale was not the kind you’d expect from a Hollywood swords & sandals epic. So, what was it then, I wondered. I knew it was screened out of competition at Cannes in 2009, and on Wikipedia I learned it was one of the highest grossing movies in Spain (since it is a Spanish production). Perhaps it’s the controversies that keep the movie out of public attention. Controversy, you ask ?
The plot deals with the final years of ancient greek phylosopher, mathematician and astronomer, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who lived in Alexandria, then under roman jurisdiction. The focus of the movie deals with that particular time period as it also coincided with intense fighting between religious factions (though the movie deals primarily with the christians). Hypatia herself died as a direct result of the conlicts, executed by the christians, who accused her of being a witch. Amenabar divides the focus between two other characters, Davus ( Max Minghella) a slave in Hypatia’s household, who turns to the christians when they start to take over the city, and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), formerly a student of Hypatia, later roman prefect of Alexandria. Both share a great love for Hypatia, thus contributing to the romantic facet of the movie. So we have it all. There’s a historical biopic, religious conflict, and, of course, impossible love. Does it all work ?
Yes. Everything clicks together quite well, thanks to Amenabar carefully juggling the multitude of topics. The historical aspects are interesting, the phylosophy is involving, the politics are easy to grasp and there’s a sense of brewing controversy as it manages to touch on some very hot topics regarding religious zeal and manipulation. There is a lot of authenticity to the way religious leaders use the teachings of their religion for their own political ascendancy, turning their followers into an angry mob that can (and actually does) overthrow the empire’s grasp on the city. The moments of injustice are unbearable thanks to Amenabar’s hightened sense of drama. We feel the frustration when the Library of Alexandria is devastated by the christian mob, or when Hypatia is taken to her death. The romance is effective and cleverly underplayed, underlining Hypatia’s image as a woman of science on a quest to find absolute truths in a world which regards her as an inferior creature.
The controversy here obviously regards the fact that the christians are shown to be the troublemakers, destroying, killing, and being the ultimate villains. But it must be understood that this is all about politics, not the teachings of religion, but manipulation. Here it focuses on the christians, but it’s just as accurate a depiction regarding any religious/political movement. It’s well known that for as long as religion existed, it has been used for political battles. There are always those that will twist the words of any holy book, or prophet, and shape them into a deadly weapon against their adversaries. The director himself probably took some liberties in fashioning the plot, especially regarding the love triangle, in order to illustrate his point of view. In a way, the plot bears resemblance to Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”, an overlooked historical epic, that pretty much deals with the same issues, albeit in more spectacular fashion.
“Agora” is, like the title suggests, a forum of discussion. It blends genres and provides some very hard issues to discuss. It’s daring and atipical. But it’s primarily the story of a woman, of her dreams, and her world, seen through her eyes, eyes that try to see with the help of logic reasoning rather than blind faith.