In case you didn’t know, ‘Agora’ means market place or a public square. But a Latin vocab lesson isn’t the only thing you’ll get from Alejandro Amenábar’s first film since 2004’s The Sea Inside.
Astronomy, geometry, algebra, theology, ancient history. You name it, this encyclopaedic epic knows it.
Beginning in 391 AD, in Egyptian capital Alexandria, the film is set against a backdrop of religious turmoil, as Christianity sweeps across the Roman Empire. This pivotal moment is viewed via the intriguing real-life figure of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), an atheist philosophy teacher obsessed with figuring how the Earth fits into our solar system.
Basically a hotter-looking version of Patrick Moore, Hypatia has little time for men. She rebuffs one infatuated student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), with a rag soaked “with the blood of my cycle”, while her other would-be suitor, her slave Davus (Max Minghella), never really stands a chance. Unfortunately, neither subplot amounts to much in a film that gets muddled after its vivid first-half climax – the sacking of the Alexandria Library.
Nominated for 13 Goyas (the Spanish Oscars), it’s rather telling that with the exception of Best Screenplay, the seven awards it claimed were all in the technical categories. Visually, Agora is the proverbial feast, from the vivid realisation of the ancient Alexandria to the aerial shots of the Nile delta, as if the camera were hovering above the clouds.
Yet lacking the killer emotion of The Sea Inside, or the taut direction of Amenábar’s earlier English-language effort The Others, the narrative desperately lacks focus in the second half. Like the sun, Hypatia should be the centre of Agora’s universe but never fully is, as Orestes, Davus and others all clamour for attention.
As a result, the ending is nowhere near as powerful as it should be.
High-minded and ambitious, Agora is also resplendent and rich, full of striking images. A pity then it’s all such hard work: laboured plotting, heavy-handed dialogue and about as much direction as a broken compass.