In the 4th Century A.D., within the city of Alexandria in Egypt, the Roman Empire still managed to carry on as if the rest of their territory was not now under threat from forces both outside and inside. Working at the library there was Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a great teacher and philosopher who was notable for being a woman who taught men in the halls of learning there. But there were religious tensions erupting, and the Christians were starting to rise up against the Roman so-called pagans, not to mention their dislike of the Jews - things were beginning to look bleak.
Here was a fictionalised historical tale from Spain which perhaps owed more to the television series Rome than the film that reignited public interest in historical epics, Gladiator. Except in Agora, there were intellectual matters to be taken care of which director and co-writer (with Matteo Gil) Alejandro Amenábar evidently wanted to bring up as he saw them as relevant to the social and cultural tensions that were blighting the modern world. For a film that pleads for tolerance, it took too long to warm up to its subject, finding that the history it portrayed was exceedingly complex, maybe too much so to be summed up in a simplified two hour movie.
All respect to Amenábar for trying, however, and in amongst the barrage of facts and figures, opinion and theory, there were some provocative ideas that made it through. It could be that the biggest mistake here was not to concentrate more fully on Hypatia, as Weisz again proved her knack for conveying intelligence in her characters, which was vital for playing a genius ahead of her time. Sadly, too often Hypatia came across as a supporting figure in her own story, and the scenes where she works her way towards an understanding of planetary motion were a little too much like those corny composer biopics where Beethoven sits down at his piano and suddenly stumbles across his Fifth while experimenting with tunes.
The film really takes up two halves, the first leading up to the ransacking of the library by the Christians, and the other Hypatia's eventual fate. One of the other characters is Davus (Max Minghella), a slave who turns to Christ in spite of being in love with his mistress, and is therefore prone to more soul searching than many of his fellow believers. Religious disputes build to the Romans under siege in their library while the Christians gather outside, baying for blood, and when it is decreed they should be allowed in, it is a turning point for the city, and, it is implied, for the state of faith in Ancient times, with the Jesus mob gaining the upper hand.
An upper hand which includes stoning anyone they disagree with, including the Jews, which in that latter half brings about an attack by the Jews on the Christians, which in turn results in the Christians raining down a storm of violence on any of their rivals, never mind all that love thy neighbour business. If this sounds anti-Christian, then actually Amenábar does his best to achieve balance, it's just that the "good" followers are drowned out by the bigots. Where does Hypatia fit into all this? Well, the leader of the Christians orders that all women should essentially be seen and not heard, so accuses her of being a witch because she has the ear of Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Roman representative and convert (more due to keeping his position than any faith). You can see where this is going, but what could have been a simple tale of applying feminist ideals to the past is made genuinely worthwhile by Hypatia's view that she must question what she believes to attain a purer truth, while the religious bigots do the opposite to live in ignorance that tolerates no dissent - and no progress. It takes a while, but Agora does repay your patience. Music Dario Marianelli.