STUDIO: Lionsgate
MSRP: $27.98
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
• Director’s commentary
• “Journey to Alexandria” documentary
• Deleted scenes
• Storyboards: Production Design, Costume Design
• Photo Gallery

The Pitch

It’s Gladiator, but instead of Russell Crowe we’ll have Rachel Weisz, and instead of fighting in the Coliseum, we’ll have her solve cosmic riddles.  Oh, and the Christians are the bad guys.

The Humans

Starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Rupert Evans, Homayoun Ershadi, Michael Lonsdale, Sammy Samir
Written by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

The Nutshell

Near the end of the 4th century AD, the Roman Empire was near collapse.  The ban on Christianity had just recently been lifted and the clash between the pagans, the Jews, and the Christians was just beginning.  Enter: Alexandria, Egypt, where teacher Hypatia (Weisz) studies the night sky to figure out just how the planets and sun orbit each other.  All this while fending off advances from Orestes (Isaac) and Davus (Minghella) and trying to avoid being stoned for her anti-religious beliefs like the earth revolving around the sun instead of vice versa.  Given how these things have all been resolved nowadays, you can guess how this one ends.  Oh wait.

“If only I could sculpt my eyebrows like those heavenly creatures upon her face.”

The Lowdown

Period pieces set during the ancient Roman Empire tend to focus either on their larger-than-life, gaudy rulers or their fetish for gladiatorial games.  Both rely on special effects and action to tell their tales while Agora goes another, fresh route that works as well, if offering a much different experience.

This is not Ridley Scott’s Rome.  Which is fine by me: we’ve already seen plenty of swords-and-sandals epics filled with computer generated battle scenes.  And while legendary scrums in the Coliseum can be entertaining, Agora examines the oft-ignored (in modern cinema, at least) moment in time when Christianity took over the pagan world, as told from the viewpoint of a scientist.  It makes sense then that despite being helmed by the director of The Others and starring the former Mrs. Darren Aronofsky, Rachel Weisz, Agora got little to no support nor enjoyed any commercial success here in America: portraying the Christians as bad guys isn’t exactly going to gain much support stateside these days when a number of Americans consider this country to be ordained by God himself.  (Not so in Spain, where it won 7 Goya Awards and was a box office hit.)

This guy can’t be a Christian.  He looks way too much like an Arab.  I mean, I know what ancient Christians look like: I’ve seen Ben-Hur.

Agora focuses on the power struggle within Rome between the traditional powers, the Jews, and the upstart Christians, whose faith was gaining considerable strength and influence across the globe as the ban on their religion was lifted.  Our eyes and ears in this world during this strife lies in that of Hypatia, a philosopher and scholar who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.  Her main goal during the course of the film is to solve the conundrum of how the orbits of the planets work around the sun – a novel concept since most at the time thought the earth was flat and that the entire universe revolved around it.  Perhaps it’s just because I find astronomy fascinating anyway, but Agora made her academic journey captivating to watch.  I found myself rooting for her to figure out that it wasn’t a true circle that governs the orbit of our planets, rather an ellipse. Yay, math!

Leave it to a movie about scientific investigation, religious upheaval, and political turmoil set in the 4th century AD to speak so loudly about our current state of affairs here in the second decade of the 21st century.  Watching this movie, it’s hard to not feel that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Science still battles with religion, with religion usually winning in the public favor.  Religion gets dangerously mixed up with politics.  Disagreements with all three end up in violence, revolt, and death.  Aside from 24-hour-news cable TV, cell phones, and unmanned drone bombers, it’s still pretty much same old same old. 

Nothing shows how much you believe in the power of love and forgiveness quite like axing a dude in the face.

It’s also relatively clear how director Alejandro Amenabar feels about the whole situation since he chose to focus on Hypatia and not Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (Samir).  That said, it’s not like Michael Moore’s penning the script, either — the film is full of characters that run the gamut, from pagans to Christians, extremists to moderates, and everything in between in both camps.  While Christian leader Cyril is the unquestioned villain of the film, the pagans aren’t all portrayed as benevolent victims, with their leaders coming across as ineffectual, outdated, and weak and wrong in their own right.  The interesting aspect of the film lies in the complexities and humanity shared between those with vastly different beliefs — namely between Hypatia and Davus (her once-and-former slave) and Orestes, two Christians who still respect (and love) her despite the fact that she believes in things that lie in direct conflict with that of the Church.  Imagine that: people able to respect each other despite not believing in the same spiritual constructs.

As is customary with films more interested in the humans than the effects, much hinges on the performances of the actors on screen — and Agora excels.  Everyone shines in their well-written roles in this fully realized world with sets that feel real.   Weisz, in particular, anchors the film with a solid performance that captures the frustration, exhilaration, patience and sadness within Hypatia as she navigates the various leaders around her while she just tries to study the cosmos in peace.   Not to say that the movie is all talk: there are fight scenes, which are staged and crafted nicely (it’s not Amenabar’s strongest suit, but he’s more than competent in this respect) — and I found the variety of sets and pieces strongly put together; at one point Hypatia ventures out onto a ship to test a theory and it felt like she really was out in on the sea.

Behold the cosmic egg.  Humanity will never be the same afterward.

Agora is not without its flaws.  One issue with the film comes down to the very subject matter that sets it apart from other historical epics of the same era.  Even for someone like me who finds astronomy and religion fascinating, it wasn’t wholly moving or memorable enough to stick in my mind long after.  It ends up playing like not a whole lot more than a big-budget History Channel special — entertaining while educational, but not something you’re going to revisit over and over.  Still, it’s worth seeing once — if nothing else, to pique your interest and learn a little about that unique time when Christianity – a faith whose impact on humankind can hardly be understated – began to take over the biggest empire in the world. 

Regardless of how you interpret all of these events, it’s a testament to Amenabar’s film that there are different ways to read his tale, rather than just getting the black-and-white, red state/blue state portrayals of these controversial topics that are all too common these days. 

“What I wouldn’t give for just one other chick to hang out and study math with.  Just one!”

The Package

The film looks fantastic — Amenabar did a fine job with his $75 million budget, sinking it into his set pieces and costumes.  The DVD comes in a 2.35:1 widescreen presentation with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.  Pretty much what you’d expect from a digital versatile disc these days.  Also comes with a solid number of extra features, too, that enhance the experience. 

7.1 out of 10

Now this guy is quite the Nostradamus: setting himself ablaze in defiance of the Vietnam War about 1500 years early.