Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Ashraf Barhoum, Oscar Isaac, Homayoun Ershadi, Max Minghella
RunTime: 2 hrs 5 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: M18 (Mature Theme)
Official Website: http://www.agorathemovie.com/
Opening Day: 25 February 2010
4th century A.D. Egypt under the Roman Empire. Violent religious upheaval in the streets of Alexandria spills over into the city's famous Library. Trapped inside its walls, the brilliant astronomer Hypatia and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the Ancient World. Among them, the two men competing for her heart: the witty, privileged Orestes and Davus, Hypatia's young slave, who is torn between his secret love for her and the freedom he knows can be his if he chooses to join the unstoppable surge of the Christians.
Critics’ favourite Alejandro Amenabar has churned out great movies consistently (i.e. Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others and The Sea Inside). Agora proves to be a watershed project of sorts, both in terms of production scale and quality; the production is extensive what with huge cast involved but disappointingly, the substance takes a nosedive.
This is a step down for Amenabar, whose previous features were at least compelling. Oft times during Agora’s screening, I found myself mucking around with my iPhone and wandering through its numerous tantalising applications (the iPhone addict that I am!).
Set in Alexandria in 4th century A.D. Egypt, the movie opened with a lengthy prologue which introduced a medley of Roman students in a classroom in a series of tedious expositions in attempts to decipher the Earth’s geological mysteries. Hypatia, the strong-willed and principled astromer helming the class, was the fulcrum of this epic but the normally inimitable Rachel Weizs’s played her with workman intuitiveness, giving nothing more to what demanded of her in the pedestrian script.
Sure, the lascivious will get a glimpse of Weisz’s silken body. But besides outlining her obsessions with decoding the Earth’s orbit to butt-nudging lengths, the movie didn’t get beneath that. You won't get to know her more human qualities besides her generous compassion. In fact, she came across as oddly asexual as she rejected the advances of her potential suitors and was single-mindedly devoted to her discipline, like a Scientology nun.
The action only really kicked in near the forty-fifth minute. Before that, many times as Hypatia glanced up to the sun and sky or when the camera took a POV stance from the heavens, I was praying some mighty celestial being would pop up onscreen to save the dull Hypatia and pagans from the snarling Christians. At least the sudden about-turn to surreal Terry Gilliam mode would have roused me from alternate moments of hibernation.
I suspect Amenabar made Agora not for personal gratification; it’s more like a project for him to earn a salary. Although adorned with a huge cast, gorgeous sets and a big name lead actress, Agora just didn't suck me in emotionally. It lacked heart and the supposed emotional scenes were curiously flat. You will also be hard-pressed to find Amenabar’s dexterous directing which often showed a masterful control of tone, tension and characterisations. It is no different from the melodramatic Masterpiece Theatre fodder. You get stilted drama overloaded with Roman paraphernalia and clumsily-choreographed mob scenes. But here, everything seems second-rate to the Hollywood productions.
Movie-dom never seems to learn. Agora is yet another scathing reminder that big names, big budget and epic stories don’t equate to a good movie.
Despite the grouses, Agora is still passably watchable thanks to the provocative treatise, which pits paganism against nascent Christianity. Controversy will abound as this movie’s depiction of Christians isn’t that all that flattering, but those who criticise it as anti-Christian are missing the bigger picture.
What Agora depicted were a mindlessly fervid people blinded by their religion and spurred on by herd mentality, to the extent of committing larceny, racism and blasphemy. The irony is that the un-Christian and steely Hypatia chose to devote her life to unraveling the truths of the universe for the greater good, and this process was worth all her life and even death. And it didn't make her any less human or moral than others.
(Watchable but not the relic you thought it would be)
Review by Adrian Sim