Alexandria in the 4th century is the setting for Oscar-winning director Alejandro Amenabar's latest drama. A sweeping historical story taking in the science, politics, philosophy and religion of the time, Agora tells the story of Hypatia (Weisz), a feminist, Ancient Egyptian-style.
It's as ambitious as it sounds and is a fascinating introduction to Alexandria during this turbulent period. Throw in a melodramatic love triangle involving our heroine, her slave Davus (Minghella) and Orestes (Issac), the Prefect of Alexandria, and a generous two hours to give us Alexandria 101, and Agora has all the elements for compelling drama. Yet it fails to excite.
Weisz is charming as Hypatia, a young mathematician, astronomer and teacher and the glue that holds Agora together. Little is known about her and her scientific work has been lost, but Amenabar and co-screenwriter Mateo Gil have crafted a story based on what is known: she was a bright, beautiful, acclaimed mathematician who dedicated herself to her work rather than living a conventional married life.
As the Roman Empire becomes more tolerant of Christianity, Christians gather in Alexandria, the city of knowledge and ideas to challenge the philosophical thinking of the students of its famous library, the Roman leadership, and the Jewish population. As the tension builds between different factions, Hypatia is targeted for her influential relationship with the leaders of the city, and her values and beliefs are tested more than ever before.
The characters have a passion for learning, for questioning ideas, for political power, and for religion. However, there is a lack of urgency and the passion fails to translate into a story that is emotionally engaging.
Much of this is the result of Amenabar's approach to telling this story. His approach is of the detached observer, as if we're on the street witnessing events unfold. This steadily paced method is applied regardless of whether it's a quiet and introspective moment as Hypatia works to unravel the mystery of the cosmos, or if the Christians and Jews are engaged in bloody and brutal battle.
However, Amenabar does get the big picture right. He brings the city of Alexandria under the Roman Empire to life through impressive art direction and costumes, easy-to-understand science, and social, political, and religious themes that are still relevant today.
If it sounds like a lot - it is, and that's the problem. There is simply too much going on and as a result the individual stories that would really connect us emotionally get lost in the sheer volume of the production.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Issac
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Running Time: 127 mins Rating:M (Contains violence)
Verdict: An interesting era and fascinating story, but a somewhat lifeless drama