Review: Agora

Agora | Alejandro Amenabar, 2010

Ah, religion, man kind’s best and worst friend. Best in that a ton of people find comfort in it, enough even to base their whole life around it. And worst in that these followers can get too extreme, and even cause the genocide of thousands of others who do not share their belief. I believe in God, and all, but I think religion is silly, to put it kindly. It is pretty much the only thing that keeps the world divided, mostly because of the many interpretations that people give to the holy texts and the blind faith that the followers put into the people that claim that they are the vessels of their god. And there are many events that prove what religion does. The Holocaust and the Crusades are the biggest ones, of course, but there is one more event that, while not as “big” still has a powerful story and shows how crazy religion can be. This story is depicted here, in Agora, and director Alejandro Amenabar does right by with this flawed, but masterful movie.

Agora tells the story of the famous female philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weiz) during the days before the Christian take over of the city of Alexandria. She is an atheist and very passionate about philosophy and is keen on finding out how the cosmos work, if the heavenly bodies revolve around the earth, or if they revolve around the sun and how. She teaches young people, one of her students; Orestes (Oscar Isaac) is in love with her, as is Davus (Max Minghella), her slave. She lives in Alexandria, a city where the Pagans and Jews lived in peace, until Christianism was allowed. Now, the Christians, want their religion to be the one true religion, and things start going bad. Once the pagans decide to retaliate, they are outnumbered, and the emperor ruled in favor of the Christian and they take over and destroy most of the archives of the famous library of Alexandria. From then on,  the Pagans are outlawed, and most of them convert if only to be accepted, but Hypatia is still the same, only focusing of science. Davus was freed and now works as sort of Christian law enforcement, but she still has feelings for Hypatia, and Orestes is the prefect of Alexandria. But still, years later, the Christians want more power, and since Orestes trusts Hypatia the most when it comes to making decisions, they want to hunt her down.

I was surprised by how much I loved this movie. I had heard mostly mixed things about it, and since it was never going to come to a theater near me, I just kind of forgot about it although I had wanted to see it since it was announced. So, when I was thinking about what movies I had to catch up with before the year’s end (not that I will watch everything that I want to watch in the next week), this movie came up, and I immediately looked for it. And none of the reviews I read prepared me for what I was about to watch.

First off, I rarely get angry by movies, the last time was, maybe The Cove, but this got to me. Seeing all those religious pricks argue against things that have been proven to be true, and getting ignorant fools all riled up about them made me want to shout at the screen. It must be because the same thing is happening right now in the world of politics in the U.S.

So, I guess that Alejandro Amenabar and his co-writer, Mateo Gil, did their job when writing the screenplay. Some say that it is the movie’s biggest flaw because it is obvious in pointing out that Christians are nuts, but it’s the truth. They tried to show the arguments on both sides, but the argument of the religious people is always that “God wills it” or that “it’s in the bible, so it must be true.”

Another complaint is that the movie is bland. Sure, it runs through the motions of your average swords-and-sandals epic, but I don’t see anything bland about it. Sure, there were some dry spots, like when we are looking at things through Davies eyes, but that is very minimal, and in the end proves to be very important. And besides, don’t people complain about the fact that big movies are empty and all about spectacle? Had this movie been released by a major studio, or by the specialty division of one as it was in other parts of the world, the movie would have been praised for being a thinking-man’s movie disguised as an epic blockbuster. But since The Passion of the Christ showed that religious folks could be a driving force at the box office, studios have shied away from making movies that oppose it, or even question it directly. Besides the major topic of the movie, it has just about everything that makes a good blockbuster, from exciting set pieces, to a meticulously crafted production. However, this movie ended up grossing about $600.000, and about $38 million world wide, most of it coming from its native Spain, It’s a shame really, since besides being really smart, it is entertaining.

Now, it’s Cannes premiere, it’s limited release, and the fact that it was funded with Spanish money gave it art house credibility, but like I said, it is an epic blockbuster in disguise, starting off with its battle scenes that would have pleased people who think Michael Bay is the greatest. Amenabar may be known for his intimate movies, but here he definitely showed that he can handle a movie of grander scale. However, he continued to use the skills he learned in his other movies to create edge-of-your-seat tension that is topped by few other movies this year. Also, he assembled an amazing production team, and the result is one of the most beautiful movies of the year.

When I first saw the trailer, I was not impressed by cinematography. I thought it looked kind of fake. But seeing the whole movie gave me a completely different impression. There are a few stylish shots, but mostly the aim of cinematographer Xavi Gimenez was to capture Alexandria as it normally would look, and the result is a very organic, almost Deakins-esque looking movie. Guy Hendrix Dyas, who is the talk of the art directors’ world due to his work in Inception, delivers yet even more amazing sets. He had the task of realistically producing Alexandria, and most importantly it’s famous library, and he succeeded. Gabriela Pescucci‘s costumes are beautiful, and probably more realistic than most movies set during this time as they don’t have that old-and worn out look they usually have to show that the movie is set in the past. Also, he makeup is perfect. And Dario Marianelli wrote what may just be the most bombastic, beautiful, and overall best score of the year (sorry Clint and Alexandre).

As for the performances, well, they are mostly good. Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Michael Lonsdale, and Rupert Evans are serviceable given what they have to do with their role. But the movie belongs to Rachel Weiz. The performance is so passionate, that you actually forget that you are seeing the woman who played Brendan Fraser’s wife in The Mummy. When she is the scenes of scientific discovery, there is child-like sense of wonder that you would think that she is learning those things as the same type as her character. In a year full of great roles and performances by women, she may just be the best, and would be in the conversation of Oscars (as would everyone else involved in the movie) were it not for its poor marketing.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Agora is one of my favorite movies of the year. It is a smart, thrilling, and exciting take on religion that deserved to be seen by a wider audience. Hopefully as the years go by, and Alejandro Amenabar and Rachel Weiz continue expanding their resumes, curious movie watchers will get curious about their filmography a

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2 thoughts on “Review: Agora

  1. A very thorough and thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and, agree, it was a beautifully shot movie. I loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorted some history in pursuit of his art. The Great Library didn’t end as he depicted and Synesius wasn’t such a jerk. However, that’s what artists do. I don’t go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

  2. I must note that you make the mistake of equating religious people with christians. This is untrue. I am a Hellenist, and worship the same Gods Hypatia most likely worshipped herself (seen as to her philosophical curriculum, which was the basis for Hellenic theology in that time). We Hellenists don’t have, never had, and never will have any books that are the one true word of the Gods. We stress reason and logic, by studying the ancient works and thinking for ourselves. Not by blindly following Homēros or Hēsiodos or anyone else’s writings.

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