Agora, Spanish-made but filled with the king's English, tells the mostly forgotten story of the female astronomer Hypatia, a proto-feminist and secular aristocrat who teaches the fledgling science of the heavens to classes full of men in ancient Alexandria, a city boiling over with religious strife. Brought heroically to life by Rachel Weisz, Hypatia is an intellectual and political force to be reckoned with. She wades headlong into the male-dominated seas of philosophy and religion in the face of radical Christian leaders who loudly declare the dominion men must have over women. This creates tension right from the start, and you get the sense that at any minute the fanatical masses will rise up to put Hypatia in her place.
One thing I did not expect was all the stoning; there is a lot of stoning. Christians stoning Pagans, Pagans stoning Christians, Christian's stoning Jews, Jews stoning Christians. Apparently it was the mass murder weapon of choice in those days. The sound of the stones is so strange and benign, like fat raindrops, as they cast death.
Lensed by cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, the film is unfailingly gorgeous. Director Alejandro Amenabar, however, shows his greatest aptitude with actors, especially in the quieter, subtler scenes. Moments between Hypatia and her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who falls hopelessly in love with her, are particular tense and riveting.
For a swords-and-sandals picture, Agora is admirably fresh and accessible; the acting and much of the dialogue is natural, the production design is robust and lived-in, but what stands out most is the cinematography. The lighting and shot-making really give the action room to breathe. It's rare to see a film set circa B.C. that is not stuffy or overly ponderous.
The film's major flaw is its overall pacing; most individual scenes have a good flow to them, but the picture as a whole feels uneven, at times too slow and at others jarringly rapid. There must be a steadier director's cut tucked away somewhere, and indeed the cut that screened at Cannes last year was longer by 20 minutes, but given its lukewarm critical and box office reception (in this country, at least), I fear this or any better version may never see the light of day.
There is an excellent film lurking just beneath the surface. Agora should have risen to Gladiator-type levels of praise and cultural relevance; alas, it is largely lost in the sands of time, much like Hypatia herself.