Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****½
What a pleasure it is to take in the visuals and verbiage of Agora, Chilean-born Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar's new film -- and his best yet. The time is past due for an intelligent broadside against religious fundamentalism, and telling the story of Hypatia -- the 4th Century Alexandrian woman who was a teacher, astronomer, philosopher, mathematician and humanist -- proves a wonderful, enriching way to provide it. As soon as someone, anyone, decided to put his faith in the world's first and biggest "imaginary friend," and then started recruiting others to join the club, a stubborn, entrenched faith was born which, in the words of Richard Dawkins, "defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence." (Call it Jewish, Islamic or -- in the case of the bad boys of Agora -- Christian fundamentalism.)
If Amenábar does not track the actual birth of fundamentalism, he takes us back far enough (the "prophet" Muhammad was not yet born!) to understand that the object of the fundamentalist's faith does not matter; it's the faith itself that is so destructive. From the first, when we see Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, a shoo-in for Best Actress nomination at awards time) in her open-forum classroom, it is clear that this is not your everyday, 4th-Century woman. She's bright, and better yet, has the ability to reach her students and get them to think and reason. Alexandria of this time was full of pagans, Christians and Jews, all jockeying for position, but Hypatia allows all of them into her class, refusing to countenance divisions where learning is concerned.
Her father, Theon (the sterling Michael Lonsdale), is the head of the city's famed library, and in their household they keep (as did all the upper classes) slaves, one of whom, Davus (Max Minghella, Art School Confidential), though a pagan, begins to flirt with this new Christianity -- particularly when Theon beats him for confessing to the ownership of a religious cross (Davus is actually protecting another female slave). Also in the mix is Orestes (Oscar Issac), one of Hypatia's students who is in love with her. As is, we soon learn, the slave Davus.
There is plenty going on here but -- surprise! -- Amenábar (co-writer with Mateo Gil, El Metodo) handles it all quite differently from what we are usually fed. Instead of the sex 'n sin of the standard historical epic, the focus is on abstention, along with reasoned, intelligent dialog from the participants. Oh, there's plenty of massive crowd scenes; violence, too, when necessary (no undue blood and guts, however, though there is some menstrual blood, also handled in a manner to make you sit up and take notice). But the big scenes take their place against many small, intimate moments with, again, unexpected results. Amenábar also finds lovely, rich opportunities to use the circle/elipse -- the movie's strongest recurring visual motif.
As a mathematician/astronomer, Hypatia's strongest urges are toward understanding the heavens and what is actually going on there, and on earth. One of the purest joys of the film is watching Weisz's Hypatia struggle to makes sense and then go beyond the little that was known in the 4th Century A.D. The actress makes all this live and become vitally important. Minghella and Issac both portray characters trying to understand their own passions and how to deal with them. All this makes for the kind of epic movie we rarely -- maybe never -- have seen.
You may fault Amenábar for splitting his film into two parts joined by rather lengthy written titles explaining what happens during the missing years. But this is a minor infraction. He captures the spectacle, as well as the intimate moments. Better, he makes some of those massive, important moments intimate, too. I doubt we will see a scene as suspenseful and meaningful as the one in which Orestes is called upon to declaim his allegiance to Christianity. Here, the horror of church becoming state arrives in full force, and it's a humdinger of a scene.
Without undue pushing, the movie again and again calls to mind our modern times: The sacking of the Alexandria library becomes the looting of the Iraqi museums, the pulling down of a statue reminds us of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s; fundamentalist Christians of old become current Muslims or Jews, the stoning of a woman echoes down the ages and is still going on today. Most telling of all is how organized religion uses politics to maintain its power. And vice versa.
Toward the film's conclusion Hypatia tells Synesius (a fine Rupert Evans), one of her favored students who has become a Christian power broker who genuinely believes in Christ Jesus, "You have to believe in your faith; I have to question." Doubt and questioning keep individuals on their toes and societies healthy. Unlike the one we see in this film, or, it seems, the one we're living in presently.
Agora held up well to a second viewing, though this is not a particularly good transfer to DVD. (Why was not the film done in Blu-Ray format?) If ever a movie cried out for that kind of visual enhancement, it’s Agora. Maybe Criterion will one day gift us with a superior version.
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