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 (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) 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.
In his new film, Agora, Spanish tyro Alejandro Amenabar has an intriguing central character and a fascinating theme – but the two never quite connect. Fittingly for a film where the idea of planet’s movement and the ill-defined concept of gravity are recurring motifs, this distinctly different period piece – more stars and strife than swords and sandals – can never quite get aloft.
In the 4th century the Egyptian city of Alexandria is a centre of learning, with a vast library unmatched in the then declining Roman Empire. The city is divided between three faiths: traditional Egyptian polytheism among the upper and middle class, quickly spreading Christianity for the underclass, and a traditional Jewish bloc. But those distinctions don’t matter to Hypatia the Philosopher (Rachel Weisz), an astronomer in a time when many still believe the Earth is flat, who teaches to students of all creeds at the library, which is administered by her father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale).
What lurks beneath the Earth she asks her students, hoping for a discussion based on reason. But the city itself suggests a darker outcome, with religious tolerance crumbling. When the Egyptian polytheists take umbrage at the presence of the Christians, who are emboldened by Rome’s emperor converting, they attempt to forcibly drive them from the city, but are shocked at how vast their numbers are. Amenabar is showing us that every religious conflict is different, and that every religious conflict is the same. Fourth century insurgent Christianity represents western ideas of contemporary radical Islam: 'God is with us," chant fanatical Christians going into battle, and later in the film, having established spiritual authority and converted or brutally killed their foes, they police the city with a Taliban-like militia.
Aside from protesting at the fierce ructions, Hypatia is disconnected from these events. Her own story is illustrated by the two men who pursue her, a Christian slave named Davus (Max Minghella) who becomes radicalised, and privileged student Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who after converting following the failed putsch becomes the city’s civil governor. But her lofty speeches and theoretical ponderings also divorce her from matters of the flesh. She’s as stony a symbol of learning as the statues in the eventually sacked library.
Amenabar’s movie is rightly wary of fundamentalism, seeing it as the enemy of reason and understanding. That’s a starting point, but the picture stays stubbornly there, reinforcing the present day metaphor and suggesting that something should be done but never articulating exactly what. Those who seek to mollify, or simply ignore the developing Christian hierarchy as Hypatia does by literally looking up into the night sky, are doomed, and the only real change is from Davus, who opts for love over faith. The idea that Hypatia, for all her insight, is still flawed in that she treats Davus with compassion but nonetheless always as a family slave, is passed over.
Throughout this unfolding of events, which is based on incomplete historical records, Amenabar does his best to mark the narrative with his own vitality. Interior shots, with columns of sunlight and flickering candles are striking, but too often with exteriors he resorts to having the characters walk by the camera, which tracks behind them and then flies up to take in a detailed CGI depiction of Alexandria. While his widest shots – of a silent, unyielding planet too big for human rancour – make a point, often the director of The Others and The Sea Inside feels overwhelmed by the scope of his material. Earnest but dull, Agora is about the clash of science and religion, but the filmmaking elements never quite create the necessary sparks.