Alejandro Amenabar‘s Agora, which I caught late yesterday morning, is a visually ravishing, intelligently scripted historical parable about the evils of religious extremism. And I don’t mean the kind that existed in 4th century Alexandria, which is when and where this $65 million dollar epic is set. I mean the evils of the present-day Taliban and the Neocon-aligned Christian right, and the way Agora metaphorically exposes these movements for what they are.
As Adam Curtis‘s The Power of Nightmares sagely explained, these two extremist faiths are similar in their loathing for liberalism and militant yearning to turn back the clock and to above all hold high the flag of religious purity. The 9/11 attacks kicked off their holy war against each other — a war that fortified their positions in their respective cultures during the Bush years.
And now comes Agora, dramatizing how purist zealotry among 4th Century Christians led to the persecuting of Jew and pagans, to the sacking and burning of the great library of Alexandria, and to the murder of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), the first widely-noted female scholar who taught philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. (Note to whiners: Noting a well documented event that happened 1600 years ago can’t be called a spoiler.)
Amenabar’s film, an English-language Spanish production that was shot in and around Malta, seems to me like the most thoughtful and intellectually-talky big-screen epic ever made, although there’s a fair amount of strife and sword-stabbing and mob violence all through it. The intense conflicts, exacting and cultured dialogue, dashing visual energy and top-notch performances from Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Evans, Ashraf Barhom, Rupert Evans and Michael Lonsdale make Agora more than gripping for its entire 141 minutes. I was surprised, really, that it moved as fast as it did.
Some are calling it too talky or insufficiently emotional, whcih translates into the imprecise term known as “boring.” It isn’t that, trust me, although I admit it’s hard to imagine the U.S. fans of sludge entertainment being keen to see it. You need to be keyed into what it’s saying about our world and to be rooting against the bad guys (i.e., old-time Christians) to really get into it, I suppose, although the high-quality sheen is unmistakable in every department. It’s well worth it for the CG alone.