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With Agora, director Alejandro Amenábar transforms ancient Egypt—-a setting usually reserved for summertime epics—-for the art-house set. It’s true, Agora has the blood-and-guts battle sequences you’d see in a blockbuster—-with its NR rating, the film might have a bit too much. But in a genre where grunting is what usually passes for dramatic heft, this English-language film from the Spanish director stands out with strong performances and a decent script.
Hypatia (a flawless Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher/teacher and a source of adoration for her male, teenage pupils. The year is 400-something A.D., and the teachings of Jesus Christ are creating quite a stir in once-entirely-pagan Egypt. Alexandria, the center of the intellectual world at this point, is where Hypatia and her students reside, and where Hypatia’s father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is a pagan priest. Hypatia, however, is basically Socrates in a sari—-the only god she believes in is inquiry, which, if you remember The Apology, didn’t exactly result in an easy end for Socrates.
Christians, who were once food for lions, are multiplying in number and fervor across Alexandria. A few of Hypatia’s pupils such as Synesius (Rupert Evans) are converting to Christianity, which results in some heated arguments in the classroom. However, since the pupils all share—-ahem—-a massive crush on Weisz’s character as well as feeling of fraternity, these arguments quickly simmer down. Unfortunately, the rest of Alexandria doesn’t have the gorgeous, level-headed Hypatia to calm it down with cute analogies about how we’re all like triangles. A Christian tosses a pagan into a pit of fire, some nasty words are exchanged, and a few stones are thrown, which is all followed by the religious upheaval of an entire civilization.
Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s slave, is another Christian convert. Hypatia has always treated Davus well, and Davus has long been in love with Hypatia. Minghella brings a heartbreaking intensity to the role; you’re touched by his love for his mistress and you’ll root for him even when life takes Davus on a less than noble path.
A decade passes, and many of Hypatia’s pupils have grown into influential men. Alexandria is now a God-fearing (not gods-fearing) town, and Orestes (Oscar Issac), a former pupil and now the current Christian head of state, is still close with the atheist Hypatia. When religious tensions yet again arise in Alexandria (the Christians want the city to be even more Christian), Orestes, Synesius, now a bishop, and Davus, pretty much a thug for the Christian order, all have to decide what to do when Hypatia becomes the city’s scapegoat.
Some shoddy editing—-and a weird subplot involving Hypatia proving that the Earth rotates around the sun a few centuries too early—-do more to distract than add to the film’s indie street cred. Despite its flaws, Agora is an involving historical drama that mixes some of the dazzle of summer blockbuster with some arthouse attention to story and detail.
Agora is currently showing at the Bethesda Row Cinema in Bethesda, Md., and the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Va.