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by Eric Kohn
May 17, 2009 3:59 AM
2 Comments
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Amenabar's "Agora" Rings Hollow Despite Visual Shock and Awe

Alejandro Amenabar's "Agora" contains a dense plot littered with historical details of Egyptian society during the Roman Empire, but none of them can save the movie from having the fleeting qualities of a high school science class.

The story mainly revolves around the research of astronomer Hypathia (Rachel Weisz), whose constant struggle to understand the Earth's place in the universe continually clashes with the religious upheaval taking place throughout the city of Alexandria. As she engages in ongoing discussions about the motion of the solar system — on the right path to discover that the Earth revolves around the sun — her fellow Pagans fight the onslaught of Christianity. With these two conflicts in place, "Agora" oscillates between scientific and theological conversations for the bulk of its two and a half hours, with a few violent street battles thrown in for good measure. Despite the continuous presence of dramatic and awe-inspiring cadences, it fails to develop any lasting emotional impact.

Amenabar, the director of visually memorable features such as "The Others" and "The Sea Inside" clearly aimed to make an old school epic of Cecil B. Demille proportions, and ended up with a hollow reflection of one. It's worth noting that "Agora" 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's lectures, would look great on IMAX. In the context of the movie, they overshadow the rest of the narrative. There's too much forceful expression applied to scenes that don't 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 ("You're not a Christian!" "I'm as Christian as you are!").

The underdeveloped characters are worsened by a number of distractingly histrionic performances. Weisz, doing the best she can with the stagey dialogue, gives the only halfway decent performance. The other actors, all male, apparently operate in the modes of gape or smirk and little else, resulting in a frustrating, incredibly tedious narrative with no believable relationships. A central element involving Hypathia's potential romantic interest in her well-intentioned slave, Davus (Max Minghella), seems like it was lifted from an ancestral spin-off of "Dawson's Creek." Actually, that sounds a lot better — at least a pop culture takeoff on history would avoid taking itself too seriously.

"Agora" occasionally hints at the interesting material embedded in its central conceits, but never manages to enliven it. Hypathia's process of discovery has zero sense of awe, since we know where she's heading all along. Like Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," "Agora" relies on overt references to the period rather than focusing on letting it come together on its own terms. When Hypathia falls into the hands of angry zealots near the end of the movie, one of her captors makes an observation that could be equally leveled at the entire production. "Look!" he shouts. "She's not reacting!" Relying on the bland conventions of the sword and sandals genre, Amenabar has nothing new to say about the ancient drama in question. He's less inclined to create an interpretation of the era than simply a bland recreation of it.

TAGS: Reviews, Agora

2 Comments

  • Carlos | June 27, 2011 2:33 AMReply

    I absolutely agree with Julian! This is an exceptional film, the actors are excellent, all of them. I had read a few times about Hypatia of Alexandria. I thought the portrayal of her personality and the events surrounding her life was all very well made.

    "Hypathia’s process of discovery has zero sense of awe"?? I thought her mental process was awe inspiring, and her expression of satisfaction as she looks at the sun at dawn was perfect. The satisfaction of solving a mystery was clearly portrayed.

    I think the only reason this movie was not "bigger" in the USA is because it portrays early christians in a more truthful manner, i.e. a people struggling and fighting for power.

    This review is coming from someone who has probably never opened a scientific history book.

    Awesome movie! thumbs up! definitely a must watch for my kids when they are older!

  • Julian | June 26, 2011 11:48 AMReply

    This is a wonderful and important movie, remarkable for the parallels it draws between that world and ours. Everyone should watch it, learn a thing or two, and think about it carefully. Your review is so far off the mark that it sounds like you have a personal problem with the content. Does it offend your belief system or something? This chapter of history is never told, though it is pivotal, and all you seem to want is another "pop-culture" action movie. It surely isn't just entertainment, which seems to be your yardstick for quality.