Agora Review: Something Doesn’t Add Up

April 22, 2010 by  
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AGORA (12A): On General Release Friday 23rd April

Historical biopics can be a tricky subject to crack. The truth doesn’t always line up with what makes good cinema and consequently, facts are often sacrificed on the altar of entertainment (according to Hollywood Alexander the Great was an Irishman). Agora doesn’t suffer from that problem as it sticks fairly closely to historical veracity but unfortunately that makes it frightfully dull.

Set in 4th century Alexandria where Christianity is gaining momentum, spurred on by a new fundamentalist bishop, Agora tells the story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a brilliant astronomer, mathematician and teacher. While working on charting celestial bodies, she becomes embroiled in a fight to save the famous great library before the mobs claim the streets.

The story is further complicated by two men vying for Hypatia’s attention, the privileged Orestes and her slave Davus – struggling with his new found faith in Christianity which could grant him his freedom and the love of his mistress.

It’s a remarkably bold portrayal of the Christians. Rather than being the pacifist do-gooders that they frequently are in other films, here they’re just as violent and bloodthirsty as any other religious group. It’s a welcome and relevant attack on religious intolerance.

However, here’s where any innovation stops. Alexandria is not made out to be the true crown jewel of the Roman Empire that it actually was. And while the usual cinematic trickery of real-world sets and CGI have been used to create a bustling town, at no point do you feel that this was the centre of cultural and educational antiquity. The same can be said for The Great Library – arguably one of the greatest accumulations of knowledge ever amassed, its significance is never made apparent, making its eventual destruction hard to care about.

There’s also not much made of Hypatia’s role as a woman in Roman society. In a society dominated by men, she had power and influence because of her wisdom and genius. But her position as a woman is never dwelt upon until the Christians seize power and her great discoveries, while supposedly being the climax and crux of the film, aren’t highlighted as the accomplishments that they are.

Hypatia spends a lot of time pondering texts and playing in the sand with “Star Trek Syndrome” – the need to announce everything you’re doing and thinking to explain it to the audience. But we’re never told why we should actually care save for some text after the movie – and by this point it’s too late to save a film which is overlong and dull, even if it is historical accurate.

It’s a frustrating mix of high-brow philosophical debate and sword and sandals epic which never fully captures the importance or significance of the events it attempts to portray.

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