'Agora': Rachel Weisz shines as a heroine caught in an orbit of hate
"Agora," cowritten and directed by Alejandro Amenábar ("The Sea Inside"), is a riveting drama starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, a fourth-century philosopher and mathematician trying to navigate religious conflict in Alexandria, Egypt.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Agora,' with Rachel Weisz, Oscar Isaac, Michael Lonsdale, Max Minghella. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, from a screenplay by Amenábar and Mateo Gil. 127 minutes. Not rated, for mature audiences (contains brief nudity and violence). Guild 45th.
"There is more that unites us than divides us," says Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a fourth-century scholar in Alexandria, Egypt, who teaches Christian and pagan students alike in the bold, mesmerizing "Agora."
A real-life astronomer, mathematician and philosopher who ran a Platonist school during an age of religious strife, Hypatia is usually associated with the famously lost, great library of Alexandria, destroyed during a siege by militant Christians.
Weisz portrays her as a frayed yet luminous idealist, preoccupied with unanswered questions about planetary orbits, gravity and relativity while faith-based riots bloody her city's streets. Throughout, Hypatia insists her male students remain brothers in spirit, above the fray despite potentially volatile differences.
Sadly, history has other ideas. "Agora" co-writer and director Alejandro Amenábar ("The Sea Inside") offers a savage vision of Alexandria as one long conflict between early Christians — free to worship openly during this chapter of the Roman Empire — and pagans and Jews.
Against this angry backdrop, Hypatia's students inevitably follow different callings, even after finding sanctuary together during a brutal battle.
Yet Hypatia's influence never wanes — it just comes back drenched in irony in the film's second act. "There is more that unites us than divides us," echoes Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a well-meaning but largely feckless Roman prefect trying to forge a truce between raging Christians and Jews in the film's second act.
A former student of Hypatia as well as her would-be lover, Orestes is one of the film's most fascinating figures: an enlightened politician during a very bad time. Increasingly squeezed by compromises of principle, this very likable character (even more likable for remaining Hypatia's ally years after enduring her humiliating rejection) must inevitably abandon so much that is important to him.
He's not the only one. "Agora," from one angle, is a story about all the men in Hypatia's orbit who soften their principles. Among them is her father, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), a mathematician who raised her to remain free and independent, yet whips his slaves and is partially responsible for ratcheting up the street violence.
Then there is Davus (Max Minghella), a slave who pines for his mistress Hypatia and converts to Christianity in despair, ultimately muddling his loyalties everywhere.
It's no wonder Hypatia is engrossed in determining the center of the cosmos, a nice metaphor for her own, increasingly doomed position as a woman used to having the ear and respect of men from all stations. As if racing against a growing shadow, she struggles with understanding the motions of heavenly bodies and the workings of gravity, her determination pure and timeless in an era of madness.
Amenábar is similarly caught up in the bracing forces that make "Agora" a strikingly physical as well as thoughtful drama. There are many moments in the film's ferocious yet exhilarating first half when you expect Charlton Heston to show up, such is the familiar, epic vitality Amenábar brings to this widescreen, sword-and-sandal drama.
At the same time, the director, like Hypatia, yearns to transcend the earthbound, to see larger patterns and understand the relationship between the particular and infinite. Amenábar employs a couple of visual refrains, including several looks at Egypt from outer space and overhead views of rioters that make them look like scampering ants. (Just to underscore the point, he throws in a close-up shot of real scampering ants.)
There might not be anything subtle about such images. But in a film featuring a heroine trying to know the seemingly unknowable through logic and deduction, one can't help but wonder what measurable equations or distinctive forms could be culled from a heavenly observation of so much fear and hate.
Tom Keogh: email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
(The Associated Press) Fuel rules get support A Consumer Federation of America survey conducted in April found that a large majority of Americans R...
Post a comment