It’s possible to admire the grand, sweeping ambitions poured into the production of Agora without having much use for the movie itself. Alejandro Amenábar delves into a milieu — 4th century Alexandria — that’s rarely, if ever, been depicted on film. Therein, he constructs a narrative centered not on the standard ancient conceits of big battles and grand speeches about liberty, but the struggle to comprehend mankind’s place in the cosmos.
To convey the wonder of the night sky as seen 1600 years ago, the filmmaker employs low angled wide-shots of his characters framed against the magic hour horizon, sweeping pans and upward tilts that slowly careen toward the stars above. As a consequence, his picture — about the astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) — achieves the still transcendence, the ecstatic truth, of the suggestion that greater, incomprehensible forces have shaped the course of our planet.
Also, Agora comes across as a realistic evocation of ancient communal life, rendering with affecting weight the contrast between the science and philosophy being studied at the Library of Alexandria and the swells of religious passion spurred by Christianity’s rapid spread. The characters spend most of the movie speaking of the universe and its mysteries, chief among them the question of the desire of god (or desires of the gods) and his plan for the order of things. Amenábar and Gil are unable to fully resist the stilted conversational mannerisms, call them bible speak, that have torpedoed so many predecessors, but the actors (Oscar Isaac and Max Minghella round out the cast) convey them credibly.
Yet the filmmaker flounders in search of a compelling three-act structure. In its stead Amenábar offers endless, repetitive crosscutting between the mobs forming in the streets and the library’s intellectual serenity. The two elements are amalgamated in the stodgy straightforward fashion of an old Hollywood B-grade epic. Brains and science combat brawny fanaticism. The circularity of their portrayal undermines the power and cohesiveness of the project as a whole. Then the picture advances forward a number of years and shifts the conflict from Pagans-Christians to Jews-Christians, and the cycle starts again.
Emotional investment is also at a premium, as the three protagonists are a) obsessively intellectual (Weisz), b) a closed-off, near-mute (Minghella) and c) excessively composed and cocky (Isaac). The leads, all playing outsiders of sorts, adeptly express the vulnerability and unease that come with such a position, but the writing fails to render the characters in deeper, affecting shades. The actors are hamstrung by the limitations of the period, necessarily painted in broad strokes, and Amenábar’s didactic leanings. It’s hard to concentrate on character development when there’s another intolerant street mob to carry out ethnic/religious cleansing, and more scientific dilemmas to be addressed.
Still, the very existence of this adventurous $70 million behemoth exists in such a timid filmmaking climate is an encouraging sign. No matter how manifold Agora’s problems, it represents a stab at the best cinema has to offer, transporting its audience to a long lost world, reconstructed to the tiniest detail. Amenábar conducts an intriguing experiment in his epic about science and religion. Though the film never fully works, it’s hard to forget.
The Upside: Visually beautiful and set during an interesting time, the film is an admirable, ambitious attempt at an intellectual historical epic.
The Downside: However, it’s too repetitive, too thinly plotted and never immersive enough to work.
On the Side: Agora could not be more different than Alejandro Amenábar’s previous film: The Sea Inside, about a paraplegic’s quest to die.