Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Whether it is a gangster movie, or a Chinese serial that features the revenge imperative, the idea of violence begetting violence is a timeless theme.
It is such conflict that is the essence of drama in this epic film by the accomplished Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, whose last project was the 2004 masterpiece The Sea Inside.
While Javier Bardem anchored that film, the admirable British actress Rachel Weisz is the focal point of this flawed but engaging work.
She is the philosopher Hypatia, a deeply thoughtful and humanistic woman who was well ahead of her time and had the misfortune of living in a period of turmoil in 4th-century RomanEgypt.
In the port city of Alexandria, on the fringe of the Roman Empire, she teaches math and represents the pursuit of scientific knowledge at a time when man was coming to grips with the ascendancy of the Christian religion.
Tensions from the rise of Christianity simmer when its proponents clash with the Roman ruling class, mocking their pagan beliefs and idols.
Before long, after the Romans acquiesce to the observance of Christian beliefs, owing to the overwhelming number of followers, trouble brews between the Christians and the Jews.
Violence and murders and repaid in blood in the form of deadly reprisals.
The motif of circles and cycles is also seen in the life goal of Hypatia, who seeks to understand the order of cosmos, and how the Earth and Sun travel in space in relation to each other.
Aesthetically and thematically, Amenabar’s film satisfies.
There is attention to detail that gives this film a convincing look and feel, while the script by Amenabar and long-time collaborator Mateo Gil weaves together the idea that seeking perfection in life, whether in science or religion, can mean folly.
As a result of the clash of absolute views, scientific knowledge and ideals are swept aside, a fact the film weeps for. The library of Alexandria is razed in one pivotal scene, and many precious works of learning – something the intelligentsia clung on to as their legacy and proof of existence – are destroyed.
Where the film fails is in the shoehorning of romantic interest from one of Hypatia’s slaves in her. Perhaps the slave, who joins a barbaric group of violence-mongering Christian monks after she sets him free, represented a yearning for marriage between scientific theories and religious beliefs.
In any case, Agora works best when it depicts how religion takes root, and how it can be politicised. In the eyes of the film, the elegance of answers is what people seek, and for some, religion offered more palatable, though polarising, answers than science.
It is a passionate, enthralling film, with strong performances throughout the supporting cast, which includes the son of the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, Max, as well as Oscar Isaac, Michael Lonsdale, Ashraf Bahrom and Rupert Evans.
It may not be a particularly hopeful film, but it is certainly an illuminating and thought-provoking one.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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