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January 28, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Agora


Published 24/11/10 at www.artshub.com.au

This film offers us the ancient city of Alexandria, at the very end of Roman supremacy. Rachel Weisz plays talented and passionate female philosopher Hypatia, making her mark in a Roman man’s world. Alejandro Amenábar directs, with a noticeable influence. With anyone else at the helm, you’d probably get a gladiator-style tale of fatalistic glory; in Agora you still do to some degree, but it’s done Alejandro’s way. So there are plenty of luxurious one-shot artistic scenes with slow motion scrolls flying through the air. In general, metaphor overload.

Agora is centred around Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), muse for artists, detractors and Christians alike for centuries. As a pagan philosopher living in Alexandria at the time of the Christian uprising against the weakening Alexandrian government, Hypatia is in a unique position. Compelled to theorise on the layout of the solar system, and toying with the somewhat revolutionary idea of the sun at the centre, it is easy to draw parallels between the revolution going on in the streets, with the Christians taking no prisoners, and her own internal battle to find philosophical truth. She educated men who would go on to powerful positions, including Orestes, now Prefect of Alexandria, and was mistress to slave Davus, her silent sympathiser. She managed to command the interest of men, apparently by intelligence alone. Weisz certainly makes this believable, with an understated performance that reflects Hypatia’s grounded realism. Amenábar wisely avoids toying too much with any attempt at a romance; if this is truly a woman who once gave her blood-soaked rags to a suitor, then she is not likely to be someone who capitulates easy to the folly of love.

This could quite easily have become a cheesy film about a Roman mythological princess; thankfully, and I think in part due to the solid casting choices and Amenábar as director, we aren’t assaulted with that. Hypatia’s hair isn’t perfectly sculpted à la the ladies and gentlemen of that infamous Hollywood fizzer Troy; Hypatia has hair that is frizzed by humidity, just as it should be. For some reason these simple elements immediately add a grounding dimension; the audience is spared the Hollywood makeover and can instead focus on the story.

And at a running time of at least two hours, you’d want the story to be well told. Amenabar treads a dangerous line in pitting pagans against Christians; throw the complication of a Jewish sect in the mix and you’ve got a tempting background for accusations of anti-religious moralising.

Here, however, I think Agora has achieved a strong balance. The focus of this film isn’t so much about the religions themselves as it is about the struggle for power, and this is where the focus lies. Hence we avoid too much of the dangerous territory about who is spiritually right. While it may seem as though the Christians are certainly the antagonists in this scenario, it’s the same kind of rebellion you’d see in any group motivated by political or religious extremism. Here is probably the most interesting element of Agora; before Christianity became a worldwide power in its own right, it was essentially the very type of religious group it effectively stonewalled for centuries afterwards.

Then there are the not-so-interesting elements of Agora; the acting, for one, is let down by a lack of passion. This is not to say people weren’t well-cast. Rachel Weisz was a particularly prudent choice; she has the acting ability but also the subtle beauty required to play the role of someone whose rejection of the female role in society made her something of a muse and leader for her time. But perhaps dialogue was the problem, or simply the inevitable turn of destiny. Orestes, as Prefect in Alexandria, has the power to become a fearless dictator or crumble under pressure; by his final test the audience is already fully aware of the path he must take, and rather than feel empathy, we are alienated by his sad trudge towards fate.

However desperately we might want to connect our own experiences with those of the ancient world, it feels as though the lack of demonstrable human fallibility, of vulnerability, made these characters hard to reach. Each character seems so walled within their own role that we are instead forced, perhaps as Amenábar intends, to stand well away from the personal struggles inherent in the battle for power and watch it unfold from the safety of the heavens. Only Hypatia gets the luxury of her own truly personal story.

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