This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 29th May 2011
A refreshing change from Hollywood swords and sandals epics, Agora finds acclaimed Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar serving up an international cast on a platter of fact-based religious fervour, scientific revelation and romantic intrigue. Set in 4th century Egypt, Hypatia (a well-cast, dark-featured Rachel Weisz) is the pre-eminent scholar at her father’s Library of Alexandria, where she teaches young men astronomy and philosophy.
Despite being the only woman in her industry (and indeed, the only female speaking part), Hypatia is tolerated by all, and respected by many. With the growth of Christianity threatening the incumbent pagans outside the library’s gates, Hypatia’s study continues largely untroubled by anything other than reason and logic. It is a time of great change, however, and the ensuing power struggle literally turns the city on its head. Based on a real scientific figure, set in historic times, the film suffers from being sometimes ponderous then suddenly jolting when the action leaps forward several years.
However, Agora isn’t just a history lesson, and the maths isn’t boring. Hypatia is the unattainable object of desire for both her loyal slave, Davus (Max Minghella), and ambitious young upstart Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and the film’s intimate relationships are developed with restraint. Minghella, son of the late director Anthony Minghella, is mesmerising as the silent Davus – handsome yet humble, with an intense stare. Isaac (Sucker Punch) manages to imbue Orestes with marginally more sympathy than sleaze, and the reliable Weisz does much with a mere twinge in expression, as she did in her Oscar-winning performance in The Constant Gardener.
Amenabar (whose Oscar-winning The Sea Inside brought Javier Bardem to fame, and who gave Nicole Kidman one of her best roles in the eerie The Others) is no Ridley Scott in the big-budget stakes, but as exciting as Gladiator was, Agora does well with its serious subject matter and matter-of-fact rendition of religious bigotry run amok. While Davus’s dilemma – caught between his faith and love for his mistress – is maybe not mined as deeply as it could be, the film’s intense final moments are truly gut-wrenching and heartrending.