Modern lessons, taught on an ancient stage
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 23, 2010
With all the chatter "Inception" has unleashed over the past week, it might be easy to overlook another big, visually stunning and stirring motion picture making its way to theaters. "Agora," Alejandro Amenábar's absorbing historical drama, proves that, in an era of movies made for iPhones with artistic ambitions to match, there are still filmmakers willing to swing for the fences.
And for the most part, he clears them with ease. "Agora" takes place in fourth-century Egypt, where in Alexandria the astronomer and philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) regularly gathers circles of students to explore the governing principles of the universe. Although Hypatia is an atheist and her father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale, reliably grave and leonine as always), is pagan like most of their countrymen, the nascent faith of Christianity has claimed the hearts and minds of many Egyptians, among them Hypatia's besotted servant, Davus (Max Minghella), and her student Synesius (Rupert Evans), who will eventually be named Bishop of Cyrene.
As tensions rise, Alexandria's fractious, pluralist equilibrium is increasingly threatened, the conflicts finally culminating in a brutal attack on the city's legendary library. Hypatia resolutely sides with reason over zealotry -- her interest lies only in preserving the scrolls that hold the institution's vast stores of human knowledge -- and when she refuses to betray her principles, "Agora" becomes a pointedly timely meditation on how a civilization's highest ideals can be destroyed by religious intolerance and sectarian violence.
Amenábar ("The Sea Inside," "The Others") has a penchant for the self-consciously bold gesture: pulling his camera back all the way to outer space, for example, to underline notions of relativity and cosmic speculation. And when he depicts the rising tide of violence, he is prone to histrionics. He's at his best when he keeps the story simple and tightly focused on Hypatia, who emerges as a figure of both alluring charisma and disciplined, even cold, intellectual rigor.
Of a piece with her performance in Darren Aronofsky's heady 2006 meditation "The Fountain," Weisz's portrayal of Hypatia here brims with the heat and abstracted passion of intellectual inquiry. With her lambent eyes and regal bearing, she almost literally radiates intelligence, making her the perfect vessel for ideas that could easily be rendered as inert or impossibly airy. A common complaint about historical fiction is that it's neither; but even at its most sprawling and grandiose, "Agora" proves that the genre can give life, warmth and relevance to the most distant past. Like the finest historical epics of cinema's lavishly costumed Golden Age, "Agora" transports viewers to another world, the better to comprehend the one they're living in.
Contains strong violence.