Thanks to Jesus Alonso for reminding us to check the news. First, some background from the AP:
As the Roman Empire declines, Hypatia struggles to preserve scientific knowledge amid the clash of zealots in Alexandria, whose rising Christian population grows increasingly militant toward Jews and worshippers of the Egyptian gods… Forced to flee the city’s library, a storehouse of ancient knowledge and manuscripts, Hypatia rescues a handful of irreplaceable texts from a Christian ransacking and continues her theorizing on the nature of the universe. Christian leaders eventually label her a witch and make her a martyr to scientific reason…
Rachel Weisz says: “Really, nothing has changed. I mean, we have huge technological advances and medical advances, but in terms of people killing each other in the name of God, fundamentalism still abounds. And in certain cultures, women are still second-class citizens, and they’re denied education.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s review is mixed, but here are the good parts:
Amenabar gets most of the epic staples out of the way relatively early… The story then becomes a timely parable on religious intolerance, inexorable fundamentalist violence and the powerlessness of reason and personal freedom in the face of both.
The heart of the film is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz in an unfaltering performance), the fourth century AD philosopher and teacher who lived in Alexandria during the Roman Empire… Amenabar and screenwriter Mateo Gil adeptly show that each character’s destiny is written from the onset. As is history when hatred and power lust are corruptly instrumentalized in the name of a single, incontestable truth.
The Guardian UK draws parallels for contemporary relevance, and fills in some gory details (spoilers ahead, unless you already know the historical fact):
The film, part of the festival’s official selection but not competing for the Palme d’Or, received cheers. According to Edward Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hypatia’s “flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells”. Amenabar spares his heroine quite such a grim end ‚Äì but he does portray her as an areligious, Enlightenment heroine destroyed by brutal fanatics.
“Once we started researching the film we recognised a lot of echoes with contemporary times and realised we could make a film about the present,” he said. Some viewers have even likened the depiction of the members of the parabolani, an early-Christian brotherhood, to the modern Taliban. “It’s true the parabolani [in the film] resemble a little bit the Taliban,” said Amenabar. But it is not deliberate. Agora, which co-stars Max Minghella as Hypatia’s slave Davus, gives all religions a hard time: Jews, Christians and pagans are all depicted as, at times, vengeful and violent, with Hypatia and her pupils representing the forces of reason.
Indiewire was less impressed:
Amenabar, the director of visually memorable features such as ‚ÄúThe Others‚Äù and ‚ÄúThe Sea Inside‚Äù clearly aimed to make an old school epic of Cecil B. Demille proportions, and ended up with a hollow reflection of one. It‚Äôs worth noting that ‚ÄúAgora‚Äù looks fantastic, with magnificent virtual camera movements that swoop down from space to a large scale replica of Alexandria, taking full advantage of the wide screen canvas. Frequent cutaways to the cosmos, which underscore Hypathia‚Äôs lectures, would look great on IMAX. In the context of the movie, they overshadow the rest of the narrative. There‚Äôs too much forceful expression applied to scenes that don‚Äôt require it: Moments where Hypathia sketches planetary orbits in the sand and continually muses about their potential are hampered by a soaring orchestra that overemphasizes her delivery. The religious battles, meanwhile, suffer from incredulous and half-baked exchanges (‚ÄúYou‚Äôre not a Christian!‚Äù ‚ÄúI‚Äôm as Christian as you are!‚Äù).
Alex Billington at Firstshowing.net likes Rachel Weisz and sees awards potential for the production design.
While the writing may have some rough edges, there is still a lot to admire about Agora. It is hugely epic in scale, and beautifully conceived by director Alejandro Amenabar and his production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets an Oscar nomination for production design, and it certainly deserves it, as the sets were lavish and grand in scale, while also intricately detailed. Indeed, Agora was a true cinematic transportation back to ancient Egypt, and Amenabar deserves heaps of praise for at least pulling that off.