Set in Roman Egypt, Agora (according to its own description) is about an inquisitive slave who turns to the new religion of Christianity while longing for freedom and falling in love with his master’s daughter, the famous female professor Hypatia of Alexandria. But after seeing the premier at Cannes, I wonder who wrote that account and if they saw the film in its entirety, since the movie only peripherally covers these plot points and instead spends a whole lot of time superficially dabbing at other topics.
Although Agora attempts to cover a lot of ground, the film doesn’t satisfactorily address any of the plot lines. Legendary philosopher Hypatia, (Rachel Weisz) we are told, is seeking the secret to the Earth’s true orbit, but few scenes demonstrate this, and those that do repeat the same question again and again. The constant religious rioting among the people of fourth century Alexandria is much talked about, but is presented as repetitive base retaliations with no explanation other than “my religion is better than yours”. And a pair of flatulent attempts to gain Hypatia’s romantic attention falls flat, as the adoration resembles superficial school-boyish admiration, lacking any emotional depth. Even Hypatia’s rebuke of the advances of one of her suitor’s is meant to enlighten the audience to her character, but instead comes across as a mean-spirited gesture, and a poor attempt at making a profound statement about the nature of a woman’s place in Roman times.
Additionally, the writing is a bit sporadic. There are some wonderfully dynamic moments of personal detail such as the ritual of the master’s bath, but then in the middle of the film the story suddenly skips years forward with no explanation, omitting what one can only be imagined as important information on how everyone has elevated to opposing positions of power. Even more confusing is how Hypatia has come to reside in the home of the would-be lover she formerly rejected. This lack of explanation justifies the taunts of “whore” aimed at Hypatia and her role in this unexamined relationship.
The production value is also lacking. There are plenty of sweeping computer generated overviews of ancient Alexandria, as well as some overused “God’s eye” views that zoom in from outer space, but coupled with the obvious set pieces used for the interior scenes, the overall effect is that of a movie of the week or miniseries, not a mega million dollar epic. The costumes, on the other hand, are exceptional, but the hair design on most of the men distracts from this quality. Synesius (Rupert Evans) goes from a bowl hair cut in his youth to what can only be described as a Christ-like surfer dude look in later years.
The only other notable qualities to Agora are the performances of the exceptional cast, particularly of the two leads. Rachel Weisz gives an as-usual fine performance, but the role is not fully fleshed out to allow any truly memorable moments that would make this a stand out performance in an already impressive resume. It is Max Minghella, however, as the slave Davus, who really shines. Although his role suffers from the same underwriting as the others, Minghella brings a powerful presence to the screen that imparts volumes to his many silent moments as he observes the actions and events unraveling around him.
Because of Minghella, Davus is the only character you can really get a sense about and care for. And this is the film’s greatest fault – we just don’t care enough. So what if Hypatia was an independent woman in a time when such things were unheard of? It’s difficult to give a damn when she is shown living in luxury experiencing academic fulfillment while the world outside is tearing itself apart. Hypatia is virtually a Marie-Antoinette, a spoiled aristocrat of her time enjoying her privileges while the masses fight. The same can be said of the subordinate characters, all of whom are given so little screen time that it’s impossible to dislike anyone strongly enough to justify the title of Antagonist. Add to that the fact that the film lacks a solid protagonist, Agora is merely a reasonably good film with an under utilized cast with very little to do.