Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar has never wanted for ambition. Over the course of a 15-year career, he has written, directed, and composed the score (!) for four feature films that are as intellectually daring and visually exciting as they are stylistically and thematically varied. He hops from genre to genre with an ease that could be mistaken for restlessness if his films weren’t so rigorously controlled and (heretofore) nearly flawless. With his fifth film, though – the challenging but hopelessly messy Agora – his ambition finally seems to have outstripped his reach.
Set in late 4th century Alexandria amidst a backdrop of religious turmoil and political upheaval, Agora’s plot (if it even really has one) revolves around the twin foci of religion versus reason. Framed by the rapacious and bloody rise of Christianity, it is ostensibly an imagined biography of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, whose life - and life works - are wrapped in mystery, surviving only in fragments. Persecuted and eventually killed by the Christian mob controlled by Bishop Cyril, she became a martyr for and inspiration to the intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment, particularly among astronomers.
As portrayed by Amenabar, she is a chaste, porcelain faced (Amenabar makes a casting slam dunk here getting Rachel Weisz, who looks like a Greek statue come to life) patron saint of reason, set at odds against the slavering and ever swelling mob of Christian zealots who threaten to overthrow and replace the civil authority of Rome. Holed up in the Serapeum of Alexandria (the last standing portion of the larger, famed great Library) - final stronghold of Hellenic intellectualism – Hypatia leads a mostly peaceful life of wide ranging intellectual curiosity. However, her investigations and teachings begin to veer towards the heretical, positing a heliocentric view of the universe which threatens the authority of the Church (just as it would a thousand or so years later).
Led by Cyril, an ambitious and bloodthirsty demagogue, the Christians lay siege to the Serapeum, finally sacking and destroying this storehouse of ancient wisdom in the film’s tragic middle section. From there, things only get worse, both for the non-Christian population of Alexandria, and the film itself.
For its first half or so, Agora hums along at a pretty good clip, rich with ideas and rife with conflict, with a goodly amount of bloody action thrown in to fuse it all together. However, from its midpoint on, the plot of the film bifurcates, and Agora seems to turn into two different films, awkwardly bridged by a love triangle (with Hypatia at its point) that is as out of place as it is devoid of any sort of dramatic pull.
Pulling one way, the film devolves into a tired, unimaginative screed against superstition and intolerance, a bromide against the institutionalization of dogmatic unreason which is as much about the historical rise of Christianity as it is about The Way We Live Now. Amenabar veers so close to violating the basic show don’t tell rules of storytelling, that I was surprised that he didn’t just inject himself into the film itself with a laser pointer and highlighter, to underline everything in bold.
Pulling the other way, Hypatia’s “story” becomes a muddled push and pull between the Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Christian solider Davus for her affections. Both were former students of hers who ended up on opposite sides of the religious divide in Alexandria. Neither is particularly compelling as a suitor, nor particularly possessed of any charisma, and the film wanes to a slight flicker whenever it concentrates on its love story.
Meanwhile, Hypatia makes various thought experiments about the nature of the revolution of heavenly bodies which, though interesting, are still fairly basic and reductive (at least as portrayed in the film). Heliocentricism is, to be sure, one of the more revolutionary ideas in the history of Western thought, but it seems to have little if nothing to do with the main thrust of the rest of the film, except to position Hypatia as a martyr at the feet of blind anti-intellectualism. I figure if you are going to gamble on making a rigorously intellectual film about the history of the ideas, you might as well go all in and make it as dense, thorny and difficult as you can, and dare the audience to keep up. Amenabar’s reductive cosmological musings betray both a lack of confidence in the audience, and in himself to follow through on his own ideas.
A militantly atheistic broadside railing against superstition and religion (and Christianity specifically) disguising itself as a sword and sandals wannabe epic, Agora ends up being a curious and surprising misstep by a director known for his thorough command. It’s a film that at ground level is at times as compelling and hypnotic as any of Amenabar’s other films, but from a God’s eye view (which the film often assumes, pulling back to space to ruthlessly appraise the entire planet, before swooping back in to dissect the follies of man) the film is a hopeless mess, its narrative and thematic strands failing to cohere into a clear statement of intent, and its humanist/scientific thesis deflated by the lack of any sort of human or emotional connection with the characters.
Along with a few deleted scenes (would that there were more, if only to cut down on the film’s bulky runtime), and a collection of mildly interesting storyboards, Agora’s DVD platter contains a fairly lengthy (70-minutes or so) making of documentary which is, on the whole, much more interesting than the main film.
In the first portion, Amenabar and his co-writer Mateo Gil go into great depth about their motivations and inspirations for the film, citing recent rabid interest in astronomy in general, and the geocentric versus heliocentric views of the movements of heavenly bodies in particular. Amenabar claims he started his investigations with Einstein and the theory of special relativity, and then worked his way back, which I guess would give one a regressive view of human devolution into ignorance and superstition. I’m assuming this in turn informed the decision to make the film as much about the rise of Christianity as about the dying embers of Western intellectualism.
Maybe in that regard, it makes sense that the film somehow ended up in Alexandria with Hypatia as his heroine, since she is symbolic of the last gasp of Roman/Hellenic scientific investigation, before the Dark Ages clamped down for good with the ascendancy of Christianity. But Amenabar could equally have made this film about Galileo I suspect, with no real thematic or narrative difference. In any case, shoehorning grand cosmological themes and ideas into what might be just an arbitrary story just exposes the narrative disconnects and haphazard structure of the film all the more.
The remainder of the documentary is mostly concerned with the technical aspects of recreating the bustling, restless hive of 4th century Alexandria with a tight budget and CGI. Amenabar is no technical wizard, but he and his crew do wring a lot from very little, and that Agora doesn’t look as shoddy as it probably should is at least some small achievement.