Note: This review may contain spoilers.
When Agora had its UK cinema release recently it opened to sparse, albeit respectful, reviews. There was certainly very little hype or debate surrounding the movie such as I've seen recently for the new TV series of Spartacus (of which a little more anon.) Perhaps this is because Agora is a fairly rare breed of cinematic bird - a movie epic which attempts to be literate, intelligent and clearly aimed at your brain rather than your viscera. Previous cinematic attempts at this sort of thing - Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) come to mind - have usually resulted in commercial failure whereas historical travesties such the recent 300 have done well. So is director Amenabar guilty of overestimating the public's taste?
The first thing you'll notice about Agora is that it looks like one hell of an expensive production. It's richly detailed with magnificent sets and costumes all looking marvellously authentic. And the film is a pictorial delight. The opening scene in which Hypatia addresses her students in a lecture hall is bathed in the kind of shimmering luminosity you see in those 19th century painters who recreated meticulous tableaux of antiquity. And so it continues, scene after scene beautifully and imaginatively lensed. The result is a pictorial triumph and whilst clearly CGI effects have been employed (for example in the giddy views of ancient Alexandria viewed from space) there's none of the garish and obvious CGI effects which characterise essentially low budget productions like 300 and the new Spartacus.
What of the story? Hypatia ought to be a much bigger feminist icon than she is. She was undoubtedly one of the finest intellects of the late antique world, renowned as philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. It was her misfortune to be born at the wrong time, just as Christianity was evolving from being an oppressed and persecuted cult into the state religion of the Roman Empire and becoming itself the oppressor and persecutor of anything and anyone who disagreed with the holy scriptures. The learning, logic and scientific method espoused by the pagan Hypatia was anathema to the Christians and, even worse, she was a woman. For over a 1000 years after Hypatia's death in AD415 nearly all the great intellects of the western world expended their grey matter on sterile metaphysics (you've probably heard about those mediaeval theologians who debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.)
Hypatia was renowned for her beauty as well as her intellectual attainments and in this movie she is loved by two men, her student Orestes who eventually becomes Governor of Alexandria but is powerless to defend her against the fury of the Christian mob, and the young slave who is torn between his lust for Hypatia and his fanatical allegiance to the Christian faith who in the final tragic and moving scene of the movie is indeed able to "save" her (although this requires a tweaking of the known historical facts.) The movie also has some exciting and spectacular action sequences as when the Christian mob storm Alexandria's legendary library and consign the learning of antiquity to the flames. Viewers will not be hard-pressed to find modernday parallels among the religions, cults and belief-systems that still make our world a frightening place. But the focus of the movie is on Hypatia's attempt to unravel the mysteries of our solar system. The renowned astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who flourished in Alexandria 250 years before Hypatia, had asserted and "proved" that the celestial bodies including the sun orbited the earth but her own observations lead her to favour the older heliocentric system of the philosopher Aristarchus, only the mathematics don't add up. Hypatia attempts to crack the enigma and whilst there is no historical evidence for this storyline it is not, historically, totally implausible. Unfortunately for her the forces of unreason close in and for over a 1000 years the fallacious system of Ptolemy holds sway.
Some reviewers have been offended by what they perceive to be an anti-Christian or anti-faith agenda in Agora, or even worse, a kind of atheist manifesto. In my opinion this view is misconceived. One might just as well argue that movies like Quo Vadis are anti-pagan, or that the Ten Commandments does a hatchet job on the gods of ancient Egypt or that Samson and Delilah is beastly to the Philistines and their god Dagon, all surely by-products of the story being told. I prefer to interpret the movie as a warning to us about the effects of fanaticism and unreason. Hypatia is depicted as a beacon of rational thought in an increasingly irrational age, not as some kind of pagan saint, and that is what makes this movie relevant to us.
I have a few minor quibbles about the movie. Miss Weisz is a favourite actress of mine but she occasionally projects the image of a well-bred girl who has just left finishing school. Apart from that she acquits herself well in the difficult role of a beauty with great intellect. I found the acting of the rest of the cast adequate rather than remarkable (the absence of really well-known names among the supporting players will probably do the movie few favours.) Some viewers may find they don't engage or sympathise with the main protagonists to feel sufficiently involved, as the movie, until the final moving scene, seeks to stimulate your grey matter rather than your emotions. And I think the title "Agora", the Greek for marketplace or forum, is not particularly inspired or enticing (and on the two occasions I heard the word mentioned in this movie it was mispronounced with the stress on the second syllable.) But quibbles aside, this is a pretty impressive movie and I'm giving it 5 stars particularly in recognition of its high production values and pictorial splendours and for not insulting my intelligence.
Does Agora stand any chance of being commercially successful? Well I hope it does and I hope the DVD sales make up for what I infer was a cool reception at the cinema. I've just finished watching the first series of the new TV Spartacus with its lashings of soft core sex and hard core violence (I'd better say nothing about the script or the acting) - it's perversely entertaining as indeed was 300 but not in the least edifying. The makers of Agora approach the medium of film as an intelligent art form whereas the makers of Spartacus have conceived their project as a form of exploitation. Which production do you think is likely to make a better return on its investment?