Director: Alejandro AmenÃ¡bar
Writers: Alejandro AmenÃ¡bar and Mateo Gil
Principal cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac and Rupert Evans
Original release date: 23rd April 2010.
Alexandria in Egypt at the end of the 4th Century is a volatile city as the quickly expanding and legalised Christian faith not only influences the policy making of the declining Roman Empire, but also clashes with those who hold faithful to the traditional teachings of the Hellenistic world.
In a tense and increasingly violent environment, female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia (Weisz) continues to study the heavens and the Earth’s relation to the Cosmos, a course that will set her directly at odds with the teachings of the now established Christian Church.
The academic will also become the focus of admiration and yearning by two men from quite different backgrounds, pupil and future governor Orestes (Isaac) and her freed slave turned Christian extremist, Davus (Minghella).
Alejandro AmenÃ¡bar came to prominence with the excellent supernatural melodrama The Others (2001) and like that superior ghost story the focus of his truly intelligent and gripping historical drama focuses heavily on its characters, their motivations and the moral implications of their actions.
The director also asks some serious questions about the nature of religious fundamentalism and the quite often extreme actions that have been undertaken over the ages in the name of faith.
The intolerance of others and the inherent dangers of religious fever are brought to the forefront by the director with some highbrow debate and political intrigue capturing the stranglehold of the Church over the failing local Roman administration with its inherent duty to maintain peace and order within the province.
The acting is top notch throughout and Isaac shines out in the latter scenes as the politically weakened governor not only attempting to protect his former teacher from accusations of witchcraft and heirachy but refusing to acknowledge that the fledgling Church is now the source of true power in Alexandria.
The resulting stand off between the Bishop of Alexandria (the radical and future Saint Cyril is brilliantly brought to life by Sammy Samir) and the Roman Governor is a tense and gripping affair that is most certainly the stand out moment of the production and a great piece of cinema that deserves attention.
Production values are lushly visualised with a sense of gradual decay creeping into the highly realised setting of ancient Alexandria whilst more importantly the director manages to capture the madness of events when people from two opposing fractions spill over into mindless violence. The streets of the ancient city become the setting for a series of confrontations with the Christian quarter clashing firstly with those faithful to the teachings of the Hellenistic world and much latter with the newly arrived Jewish populace.
AmenÃ¡bar uses a deft touch throughout and there is no heavy handed message, scenes of appalling street violence are quite often viewed from an ariel perspective giving the audience an outsider’s glimpse of a world in transition and allowing us to possibly judge the actions of the film’s protagonists.
Weisz’s academic manages to walk a straight line through all of this upheaval and is perhaps portrayed as not only an athiestist but as someone perhaps truly in tune with the workings of nature. Wrapped up in her study of the heavens, the teacher fails more often than not to become aware that her work has placed her on a collision coarse with a Church that has become predominately dominated by men.
Those expecting a Gladiator (2000) or Alexander (2004) may be disappointed whilst its portrait of the fledgling Christian Church is miles away from heavy handed angelic nature of Ben Hur (1959). Full marks to the director for focusing an important period in history that has been neglected thus far by the big screen and for providing an historical epic of a different kind that concentrates on character, debate and morality rather than the customary sword and scandals formula.
An historical epic that wears it’s intelligence on it’s sleeve and is assisted by a lush visual flair and some excellent performances, AmenÃ¡bar’s melodrama is an intelligent and emotive exercise in film making.
Shamefully overlooked by virtually the entire media upon its initial release this thought provoking epic deserves to be found again on the small screen.
Agora is currently viewing on a weekly basis on Sky Movies Drama and is also available on Paramount DVD.