Set in 4th Century Alexandria, Agora tells the true tale of the woman Hypatia, a world-renowned astronomer, philosopher and teacher, who’s existence is shattered by the rising tide of religious animosity between Christian, Pagan and Jew. The rise of the monotheistic cults also marks the rise of mysogyny, and Hypatia – whose advanced thinking took twelve centuries before it was even closely replicated – is ultimately destroyable because she’s a woman.
It’s absolutely staggeringly realised, on sets physically built on the island of Malta (see this Times of Malta article on the local impacts) rather than relying on CGI -and this has the effect of making every part of the action seem very immediate and very real. The scenes shot from high above, watching mobs of people charge angrily about, are particularly breathtaking. And it’s well acted too, though with Rachel Weisz – who would seem to defy any Hollywood norm of beauty yet is completely, compellingly, intelligently beautiful – as Hypatia, how could it be otherwise? I also liked the sneaky casting of loathsome Arabs as the early Christians; that should also give the Christianist tub-thumpers and Islamophobes something to consider. And I was really upset by Hypatia’s fate. It was an all too painful reminder of why it’s so important that religion should have no place in public life, and a hang-nail that for the last 1600 years, the notion of “Good Christian” has been an oxymoron.
So Agora is an important film, undeniably moving, but it’s frustrating in many ways too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major motion picture where the action stops half way through so that titles can fill in the gaps before we move on to the next part. Tell not show; odd to let the screenwriters off so easily, I thought. And as a result, in spite of the budget and the stars and the Ben Hur extras and the experienced hand of Amenabar at the helm, the uneven pacing and focus on the story rather than on telling the story meant it felt like a much younger man’s film; one where the director is keen to share his knowledge of something historically fascinating, without actually remembering that it has to sit together as a movie.