Originally published on the old Cinewise blog on 31st May 2010.
When Alejandro Amenábar announced way back when that his new project would be about the early first millennium Alexandria, my thought process went haywire thinking of a film that actually tackled the Ancient Wonders of the World in a satisfying way. And when the first film that came to my mind was the Trannies 2, I gave up. When more news emerged that, the new project would not deal with the Lighthouse, I began to wonder – will anyone make a decent enough film about the Ancient Wonders? I am still waiting.
Amenábar was once touted as the next European director (he was actually born in Chile, but makes all his films in Spain) to take HW by storm after the Cruise-Kidman juggernaut bought the rights to his brilliant sophomore effort Open Your Eyes (1997) and turned it into the Cruise-starring Vanilla Sky (2001). Then Cruise took the reins as producer in his-soon-to-be-ex-starring chiller The Others (2001). The latter film is still to this day the highest-grossing and most successful Spanish film ever. The Spanishness of it is open to question. I guess by that logic Saving Private Ryan is British. World domination beckoned for sure, but the indomitable Amenábar decided to go a little leftfield and made Sea Inside (2004) – a slow-moving and incredibly powerful (and occasionally over-sentimental) paraplegic-yearning-euthanasia drama that hammered in home that Javier Bardem is … like … awesome.
When you consider his career, the diversions he took over the years certainly show that he is not afraid to tackle anything. And in all cases so far, he managed to pull it off without major issues. He jumped from snuff-thriller to existential sci-fi, from old-school ghost story to take-out-your-hankies drama. Obviously his next job had to be an historical epic. Well … this may be one jump too far even for him.
As with all (good) historical epics, there are two narratives at play: there is the larger narrative where the expanding Christianity is threatening the harmony in which the Jews and the Pagans have lived for years in 4th-century CE Alexandria. The Roman Empire is fragmenting and the Christian fundamentalist hordes are taking control of the major posts in the city. Meanwhile, the smaller narrative deals with Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz) teaching his students in the Library the workings of the cosmos. What goes on beyond the walls of the Library is mirrored in her multi-faith class where different factions soon emerge to clash with each other. Hypatia, herself an atheist, is too busy to prove that the Earth is not the centre of everything – something that is at odds with all three beliefs in Alexandria.
Soon, the Christians – now with more numbers in their ranks – begin taunting the beliefs of everyone left and right. So, the hardline Pagans in the Library take the matter in their hands and attack the Christians in the street. Soon, the melee spreads around the city and the scholars find themselves trapped in the library after grossly underestimating the number of Christians in the city. Under siege by the Christian hordes, the scholars try to protect their beloved library. However, their hopes soon fade as the news that the Roman Empire has split into East and West and that the Christians are given the right to enter the library. Unable to protect their beloved library, the scholars (mostly Pagans) flee taking as many of the scrolls as they can. The Christians then destroy everything.
The second half of the film picks up a few years after the sacking. Now Christians hold all the important posts in the city and they are not happy with the atheistic Hypatia, the Jews, and the Pagan population of the city, who are now the minority. With the help of their street mob, the Parabilani, they ransack Jewish temples and blackmail the Pagan and moderate-Christian members of the City Council to pass laws that give them more power. Hypatia and her atheistic cosmic theories also comes under scrutiny. But, Hypatia’s former pupils now hold important posts in the city and the Church. Will they succumb to the mob pressure or will they be faithful to their teacher? Meanwhile, will Hypatia find the secret to the movements of the “heavenly objects”?
There is a lot going on and for an historical epic, this is not uncommon – and I am a sucker for historical epics. However, what makes these bloated, over-produced, self-indulgent films so fascinating is when the meta-narrative works effectively. In other words, the “smaller” narrative explains the “larger” narrative and puts it in a context that makes it easier for the audience to comprehend. Sadly, the roles are reversed here – the larger narrative of religious intolerance takes the centre stage. There is nothing really wrong with that – if you want to tell a “larger” story, feel free to do exactly that. But, in this case the smaller narrative is trapped within a cliche-ridden plot with wooden, on-the-nose dialogue. There is no dramatic conflict within the characters other than what is superficially shown on screen.
The best moments come when actors actually stop talking and that’s when Amenábar’s genius shines: the scene where Hypatia’s Pagan slave (who will defect to the Christians) caresses his mistress’s ankle while she’s sleeping is such a moving scene that it stayed with me all the way to the end. And no CGI-Alexandria or massive set-pieces took anything away from that moment. What Agora needed was more moments like that and less talk about the perplexing movement of the stars. Hypatia’s quest to disprove the terra- and anthropo-centric theory is interesting, but doesn’t really carry any dramatic weight – we know that she will be proven right. And a little bit of historical knowledge gives away the ending.
Rachel Weisz, is excellent here – she manages to turn her one-dimensional character, who has to utter one stupid line after another, into a woman who is very much aware of the futility of her actions. She is aware that what she does is too small (irony warning) to what is going on around her. Perhaps, Amenábar tried to add another meta-narrative – the movement of celestial objects that contextualise the goings-on in Alexandria. Sadly for him, he fails in that too. There is a wealth of stuff here that perhaps deserves a mini-series treatment. But, even in a quite hefty running time, Amenábar’s film feels rushed.
It is disappointing, but you could do a lot worse: remember Kingdom of Heaven (2005)? Amenábar is still a formidable director and he has stumbled a little with this. Having said that, it is probably the most interesting and effective Christian-bashing film since Life of Brian (1979) or The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – and more importantly, it is a healthy discussion on the subject.