Agora Review


You certainly can’t fault Agora director Alejandro Amenabar for not being ambitious. His sword-and-sandals drama tries to connect stories related to religious intolerance, the alignment of the universe, and the love of a slave for his master. He isn’t wholly unsuccessful—the film has some very powerful moments—but there are far more misses than hits in the sprawling screenplay. The film is spectacular to look at, and Rachel Weisz gives a solid lead performance, but the film’s poor focus holds it back in a big way and makes it too frustrating to give it a recommendation.

During the decline of the Roman Empire, the city of Alexandria (in modern-day Egypt) is facing a crisis. Christianity has just been permitted by the Empire, and its followers are at odds with the city’s Pagan population, including the famous philosopher and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz). She teaches much of the elite youth, including Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who pines for Hypatia. Davus (Max Minghella) also loves Hypatia, though he can never have her and he knows it. He’s Hypatia’s slave, and while she’s kinder to him than most masters are to their slaves, such a relationship is expressly forbidden.

When religious tensions boil over, the Pagans become the oppressed minority, and Davus, seeing an opportunity to escape his situation and maybe be with Hypatia one day, joins the Christians. Orestes, seeing the way the tide is turning, forms an uneasy agreement with them and is thrust into a position of power. Hypatia, however, has no use for faith. She shuns Christianity, choosing to turn her attention instead to the governing rules of the universe.

Amenabar certainly has some big ideas, and I applaud his gumption in pursuing them, but there’s just too much to wrap your head around in two hours. To begin with, each of these characters plays an important role in getting to the film’s conclusion, yet two of them—Davus and Orestes—never interact. That means we are constantly saddled with at least two—often more—disparate storylines working toward what’s inevitably a somewhat shallow conclusion. There’s no way to satisfy every plot and subplot going on in Agora because two hours simply isn’t enough to wrap it all up.

The character of Davus proves to be the story’s weak link. He’s almost completely devoid of charisma (blame there goes to Max Minghella for a very subpar performance), and his arc and motivations are poorly developed. Why does he inevitably switch over from the Pagans to the Christians? Amenabar obviously wants you to think it’s because he can be free, but based on what’s presented, it appears he makes the switch because Hypatia hurts his feelings. It was a lame transition in what’s probably the film’s most vital sequence, and it left a real sour taste in my mouth.

But where Minghella struggles on the acting front, Rachel Weisz excels. Hypatia is by far the film’s most interesting character, and Weisz gives a performance that’s far better than the material warrants. Hypatia is a strong woman in a society that frowns upon such will. She’s passionate about her beliefs and isn’t afraid to go against the majority. This makes her a great threat to the powers that be, but she doesn’t back down. Weisz makes us believe such a woman would exist in this society. She also makes us care for her deeply.

Agora’s other chief assets relate to its technical credits. The film is an absolute feast for the eyes (despite Amenabar’s slightly annoying tendency to pan way out during key sequences). The costumes are tremendous, as is the set design. Just the sheer scope of it is something to behold. Not many films aim so high, and while that becomes a problem narratively, it’s definitely an asset visually.

But in the end, no amount of amazing visuals can distract from the mess of a storyline. I wish things were reigned in a little more because the film really does have some inspired moments. Too often, however, I found myself shaking my head with the introduction of another subplot or a half-hearted explanation for a character’s actions. If Gladiator resurrected the sword-and-sandals epic, Agora might be the film that sends it back to the grave.

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