Directed by: Alejandro Amenábar
One review said it was nice to see a historical epic with the full SFX featuring a female central character. Well fair enough, Rachel Weisz plays the scientist, philosopher and humanist Hypatia. But apart from a few background shots, she appears to be the only woman in the movie. I wouldn’t be surprised to find she was the only female speaking part (discounting wailing for the dead, or screaming and running away or being murdered in the street). It’s a pity because the subjucation of women as an intolerant paternal-God religion takes over is a major theme. We need to see it affect more than one woman!
Agora is set in Alexandria in Roman Egypt in 391 A.D. and covers the destruction of the Great Library and with it much classical Greek knowledge (Alexandria was a Greek-speaking city). The old pagan religion is attacked and destroyed by fundamentalist Christians, who having succeeded in doing that, turn next on the Jews, then running short of people to kill, onto fellow Christians of a marginally different belief system. The theme of fundamentalist and fanatic religious intolerance reflects down to the 21st century. As viewers have pointed out, there is no historical knowledge of exactly what happened (and American Christian groups have protested).
The epic scale and attention to historical detail reminds you first of the 1950s Biblical epics, then reflects right back to 1918’s classic film by D.W. Grffith, Intolerance. Intolerance is the closer comparison, because back then Griffith could employ an entire army of extras, which CGI can now replicate. Intolerance had a modern story, another set in the time of Christ and another set in Babylon. The Babylon story was the one money was poured into. Griffith wanted to start on a vista of the city of Babylon and zoom in to a single human face in the huge gateway. Camera technology couldn’t do that, so he constructed a railway line leading to the city gate, and built a tower the full height of the gate on a flatbed railway car. The camera descended the tower in an elevator as the train edged forward, so that to our perception the camera moves at 45 degrees through the air.
Intolerance (1918). No CGI. Just real people
Amenabar had it easier, but I’m sure he was aware of the parallels all the way through.We keep seeing satellite shots of the Earth from space zooming in to the Nile delta, which might be a nod to Griffith as well as going one better. It also seems to be setting the geographical location more often than we need to.
The overall result is sumptuous in colour and detail, and there is a moving love story about a slave in love with Hypatia as well as the (eventual) Roman tribune’s love for Hypatia. This makes a change from rioting fanatics and destruction.
There is just the one thing that Amenabar should have been warned not to do. Since Monty Python’s Life of Brian, you just cannot have bearded fanatics clad in black sackcloth, picking up rocks, pointing at a near naked woman, and shouting “Stone the witch!” There were only three of us in the cinema but a large crowd would have burst into laughter at the key point of the movie. You’re just waiting for one of the fanatics to break out and say “Hey! Don’t throw the stones too hard!”
I’ve watched Agora twice on DVD since the review was written. Both times with different people. The Pythonesque scene got a laugh both times too, but in the light of current events in the Middle East, the theme of religious fanaticism is even more powerful than four years ago. in most ways the film gets better on rewatching. Shame about the stoning.