(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Homayoun Ershadi, Sammy Samir, Richard Durden, Omar Mostafa, Manuel Cauchi, Oshri Cohen. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar
As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is particularly dangerous when knowledge is at odds with religious fundamentalism. When a society becomes dominated by religion, knowledge becomes heresy and those who seek knowledge become heretics. That’s a perilous place to be.
Hypatia (Weisz) is a noblewoman of Alexandria in the 4th century. The daughter of Theon (Lonsdale), curator of the great library of Alexandria, she teaches at the Platonist school at the Library; while she also teaches philosophy and mathematics, it is astronomy and physics that are her passions. Her pupils Orestes (Isaac) and Synesius (Evans) would dearly like to become her passion, as would her slave Davus (Minghella). Hypatia rejects them all, preferring to channel her energies into discovery rather than into pleasing a man.
While Hypatia is a pagan (as the leaders of Alexandria were at the time), the growing cult of Christianity is becoming more and more aggressive. When pagan statues are vandalized, a group of pagans (including Theon and Orestes) go to teach the Christians a lesson in savagery. Unfortunately for them, they discover that there are far more Christians than they at first thought and whipped up into a frenzy by the street preacher Ammonius (Barhom), the Christian thugs (known as the parabolani) lay siege to the library itself. Saving the precious scrolls from destruction is just the beginning of the ordeal for Hypatia as the balance of power shifts and the search for enlightenment comes into direct conflict with dogmatic faith.
The sweep and scope of Agora matches any historical epic, from Quo Vadis to Ben-Hur and even up to the CGI-infused epics of today like Troy. Agora benefits from marvelous set design, mostly done in Malta where Gladiator was filmed and utilizing many of those who built the sets for that movie. However, this isn’t just war and blood, guts and glory – there are ideas here, a debate of faith vs. knowledge (and Amenabar sides firmly with the latter).
There are those who criticized the movie as being anti-Christian but I didn’t see it. I think Amenabar’s stance is, if anything, anti-intolerance. He also has history on his side – the library was destroyed by a Christian mob, and Christians did murder certain historical figures in the story as depicted. That’s not being anti-Christian, it’s being pro-fact.
Weisz brings dignity and elegance to the part of Hypatia. The historical Hypatia we know mostly through the descriptions of historians, most of which are admiring of her intellect. For the purposes of the movie, a lot of blanks had to be filled in and Weisz does so in a way that makes sense with what we know of the historical Hypatia, making her human and charming, but also devoted to the search for knowledge which would inevitably bring her into conflict with those who felt that knowledge should be best left alone.
The movie wound up not doing well here in the States, struggling to get distribution and then not getting a very wide release. While it was the highest-grossing movie in Spain when it was released there (and won several Spanish Oscar-equivalents), the high production costs made it very difficult for this movie to become popular and subsequently made it disregarded in some quarters. That’s a shame too – this is a movie with something to say and a passion for its subject. Besides, a historical epic done this well is exceedingly rare and as such should be treasured when one comes out. It might be too cerebral for some but personally I think a little knowledge is a good thing. Does that make me dangerous?
WHY RENT THIS: A sword and sandals film that puts ideas at the forefront. Weisz plays Hypatia with dignity and restraint..
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Religious sorts may find the movie’s condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and implied nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amenabar wrote the movie with Weisz in mind to play the lead.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As part of the “making of” featurette there is a segment on the historical background of the movie which is fascinating.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $70M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office failure.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: Another Year