During the 4th century A.D. Egypt is ruled by the Roman Empire. Violent religious upheaval in the streets of Alexandria spills over into the city's famous Library as the recently legitimized Christians surge against the Pagans. Trapped inside its walls, the brilliant philosopher, astronomer and atheist Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) 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 (Oscar Isaac) who is one of her students and Davus (Max Minghella), 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. After the ransacking of the Library, Alexandria remains in a state of religious conflict as Jews and Christians clash violently - and as the Christians overpower the city, demanding the conversion of all leaders - including the resolutely atheist Hypatia.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
On November 26, 2010 in Toronto, ex British Prime Minister Tony Blair and noted atheist thinker Christopher Hitchens face off in the Munk Debate over whether religion is a force for peace or conflict. Exquisitely (but inadvertently) timed to release in Australia one week before that debate, Agora presents its own case - although not specifically made to deal with such a question, it does so by its subject matter. And if I had a vote at the debate, I would already be casting my vote against religion, persuaded, at least in part, by Agora.
Talented and intelligent filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar (noted for The Sea Inside and The Others) has done his best to tell this story, but it's flawed. It is problematic in casting, screenplay and editing, with a concussed result. Dazed by its richness, perhaps, the story is a confused mix of biopic - about Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) - and historical drama about the days of religious meltdown in 4th century Alexandria as Christianity's ugliest side rose to supremacy. And thrown into the mix is a futile romantic thread that is neither satisfying nor in any way credible.
Still, Agora (the name of the place) is a contentious piece of history in which we see how the most primitive aspects of fundamental religious beliefs drove public life and generated hatreds. And if you were not among those who had the power, you ended up dead. So much for religious values.
Anyway, the film presses its case for the highly intelligent and articulate Hypatia, who has been credited with some remarkable work in astronomy - 1200 years before her theories were re-articulated. Her life and times were indeed volatile and there is merit in bringing her to the screen. I just wish Amenábar had applied more focus, and given us clearer exposition of certain characters and events. It is also a little disconcerting in a film set in the ancient world to have such a wildly diverse set of accents and speech mannerisms, ranging from eloquent 21st century to vaguely European, perhaps Middle Ages. But I confess I don't have an answer for how the characters should sound - except that I prefer it to be uniform.
To its credit, though, the film has a powerful and tragically beautiful yet brutal ending.
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CAST: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Richard Durden, Sami Samir, Manuel Cauchi
PRODUCER: Álvaro Augustín, Fernando Bocaria
DIRECTOR: Alejandro Amenábar
SCRIPT: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Xavi Giménez
EDITOR: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
MUSIC: Dario Marinelli
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Guy Dyas
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 18, 2010