A historical drama set in Roman Egypt, concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, the famous female philosophy and mathematics professor Hypatia of Alexandria.
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Alexandria, 391 AD: Hypatia teaches astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Her student Orestes is in love with her, as is Davus, her personal slave. As the city's Christians, led by Ammonius and Cyril, gain political power, the institutions of learning may crumble along with the governance of slavery. Jump ahead 20 years: Orestes, the city's prefect, has an uneasy peace with Christians, led by Cyril. A group from the newly empowered Christians has now taken to enforce their cultural hegemony zealously; first they see the Jews as their obstacle, then nonbelievers. Hypatia has no interest in faith; she's concerned about the movement of celestial bodies and "the brotherhood of all". Although her former slave doesn't see it that way. Written by
I saw this today at the Toronto International Film Festival, and overall it was quite an interesting experience for me. I will first comment on the pros, and then the cons.
From the beginning, the film's exquisite detail is evident -- costumes, sets, props, hundreds/thousands of extras, etc --, reminding me especially of HBO's Rome series. CGIs were amazing, and the sound effects used in certain scenes with large numbers of people were thunderous and powerful -- surely the best I have seen from a film. It is by far the most ambitious project in the bringing to life of an ancient city that I have seen on screen. I only wished that they would have had the actors speak in Greek, but that would be asking too much I suppose :p
Also, I liked how the film did not focus so much on portraying any one religious group as "the bad guy". Naturally, one would have assumed that it was going to be the Christians (after seeing the trailers), but in fact the goods and the bads were exposed in all religions, which added to the realism and historical accuracy of the film.
Above all, this director ought to be commended in his attempt to capture the society in the city of Alexandria of late antiquity. This has never yet been done in cinema, and Amenabar clearly attempts to do this out of extraordinary passion for his work. Agora presents to the audience a glimpse into a world that is little known outside of the circles of ancient historians and classicists, and the film's portrayal of religious strife between the different groups in Alexandria successfully shows a very complex ancient society.
The main character, Davus, also serves as an important figure, by representing the common man living in Alexandria at the time who must face the challenges of an ancient society in transition. However, I feel that the subtleties of Davus' character, who is indeed a source of much important historical information, would be misunderstood and ignored by the audience, which would be in search of something more direct and "in- your-face" from the film.
Overall, the film was at its best when it subtly hinted certain elements/themes to the audience -- this is when it showed the most sophistication in the portrayal of history, and skill in terms of artistic merit.
I think the biggest mistake that the director made was to focus too much on the religious conflict. Without a doubt, during the first 45 minutes the audience was engulfed and captivated with awe by the strife between the pagans and the Christians (probably because such a time in history is little known today, and rarely portrayed in art or discussed), but the film does not give a break to its constant references to religion. Throughout the two hours, the script continuously shows the characters' endless preoccupation with religious matters, which takes away from development of their individualities. Amenabar tries to differ attention toward other things, through the love triangle between Orestes, Davus, and Hypatia -- which works well at times, but could have been developed far more (especially between her and Davus). He also gives some attention to science; a big mistake IMO, because in such scenes, one feels like the film turns into a lecture. If Amenabar had tried to use CGIs to demonstrate some of the scientific concepts discussed among characters, he could have added something artistic to the bland dialogue of those scenes.
I was also somewhat disappointed by Dario Marianelli's score. HAving heard his compositions for "Pride and Prejudice", "Atonement" and "V for Vendetta", I was expecting a musical score that was more intense and thought-provoking, rather than a more or less typical and primitive symphony that one often hears in "epic" historical films.
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