EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. “Agora” opens in theaters this Friday.
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.