I've heard Alejandro Amenábar's "Agora," described as "The Passion of the Christ" for agnostics and liberals. I find this a gross oversimplification of a complicated and unusual film. It's difficult to categorize "Agora" because it doesn't quite fit into the mold of the recent "swords-and-sandals" action films. While there are several major action sequences, I found the film closer in tone to the big religious epics of the 50s and 60s, except that it takes what could be considered the opposing point of view.
Our heroine is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a philosopher and teacher who is the daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale), the director of the famed Library of Alexandria. Though beloved and admired by many young men, Hypatia rejects all her potential suitors, preferring to devote herself to the sciences, particularly astronomy. Among her students are three young men who will have a significant impact on her life - Orestes (Oscar Isaac), Synesius (Rupert Evans), and a slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who is part of Theron's household and secretly a Christian. In Alexandria, which is ruled by the largely pagan Roman Empire, Christians are a persecuted minority. But this does not remain true for long.
The monk Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) begins to incite the Christian population with fiery rhetoric in the agora, the public gathering place of the city. His movement gains influence and the Christians becoming a growing social and political force despite fierce opposition by the pagans. A nasty clash results in a siege on the Library, where Theron, Hypatia, and many of the students have taken refuge. Davus goes with them, but is torn between his loyalties to the Christians and his intense feelings for Hypatia. I won't reveal how the conflict plays out, except to note that the resolution of the siege only marks the end of the first half of the film.
Where "Agora" really distinguishes itself is in the second half, which takes place several years later, after the Christians have risen to power in Alexandria and are busy converting or subjugating everyone else. This is where the film's most controversial elements come into play. Amenábar does not pull back an inch from showing how the Christians destroyed much of the knowledge and culture of the pagans they displaced, and brought scientific progress to a halt. The portrayal of the Christian antagonists as intolerant fundamentalists, who are willing to use Biblical texts as an excuse to commit atrocities, has understandably made some viewers and Christian groups uncomfortable.
However, the film does not position itself against Christianity, but rather against ignorance and blind faith. The pagans are not romanticized, as early scenes show their bloody persecution of other groups. But so rarely have we seen their side of the story in film, the familiar historical narrative from such a different point of view, the role reversal is extremely startling and effective. The audience is forced to question how much of their understanding of the period has been whitewashed by the victors, and acknowledge the losses that came with the Christian faith's historical rise to prominence. Unfortunately, the film doesn't have quite such a good handle on other components of the story.
The trouble really boils down to the script, which marries too many disparate elements and revolves around a stoic heroine who never quite manages to engage our sympathies. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia often feels dispassionate and detached from the events surrounding her, wrapped up in her study of the orbiting planets while Alexandria is in the throes of social and religious upheaval. She is undeniably a striking figure, but occupies a role that is often more symbolic than active, and as seen through the eyes of her students and admirers, remains at a distance from the audience. It's only late in the picture that she comes to the forefront, but by then it's too little too late.
Also, the narrative suffers from being two distinct stories in one film: the siege and the later struggles of the surviving characters. The two hour length simply isn't enough to do them both justice. Several of the characters would have benefited from more development and additional context for their actions. Characters seem to switch allegiances between the two halves of the story, conversions occur offscreen without a word of explanation, and I had a difficult time trying to sort out the political maneuverings that were going on during the siege. It's rare that I encounter a film that could use more exposition, but this was one of them.
But credit where credit is due, because "Agora" gets a lot of things right. Director Alejandro Amenábar clearly knows how to mount a good looking epic. The production values of are very high, such that this often feels like a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, complete with massive scale combat and carnage. I would never have guessed "Agora" was a Spanish film, as it was filmed in English with an international cast. I didn't recognize most of the actors aside from Weisz, but there are several up-and-comers to keep an eye out for in the future. Oscar Isaac as politically-minded Orestes and Max Minghella as the brooding, tempestuous Davus are standouts.
I wouldn't put "Agora" up there was "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus" as a classic historical epic, but it's a film that I'm glad exists in spite of its faults. It's well worth watching, and its themes are timely, fascinating, and deserving of the attention.