Cannes 2009 Review: Alejandro Amenabar's Agora
by Alex Billington
May 17, 2009
A historical epic at Cannes? That doesn't seem right, but indeed, Agora fits, not perfectly, but it's a good Cannes period piece, at least. In his latest ambitious film Agora, Spanish-Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar takes us back to ancient Egypt, in the city of Alexandria around the year 391 A.D. We are shown the story of the professor and philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), and the events that occur in Alexandria around her, mainly the rise of Christianity. Agora boasts some wonderful production design and presents a fascinating look at the religious feuds of the time, but otherwise struggles with some writing problems.
One of the problems with Agora is that it struggles to properly develop the romantic side of the story. One of her students, named Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who is destined for great things, is in love with her, but not she with him. On the other hand, Hypatia's humble and shy slave Davus (Max Minghella) is also in love with her, or so it seems. We never really see either of those relationships build into anything. That "love triangle", of sorts, does have an importance in the overall story, but it was the weakest part of the script. However, it's not completely awful, as I was utterly fascinated with the political and religious side of the story.
Agora's real focus is on the rise of Christianity and fall of the Pagans and the Jews in the city. At the time, the Pagans (as they were known), who worshiped Egyptian gods, made up a majority of the population, but Christianity was spreading and soon began to take over the city. We are shown the events that unfold as tempers begin to boil over amongst religions. The turning point comes when the Christians try to overrun the library, which Hypatia's father runs. All of this is occurring while the Roman Empire still rules in Egypt, and a Prefect, somewhat of an emperor with localized powers, has supreme control over the city. This presentation of the historical story was actually well done and certainly the highlight of the film for me.
While the writing may have some rough edges, there is still a lot to admire about Agora. It is hugely epic in scale, and beautifully conceived by director Alejandro Amenabar and his production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas. I wouldn't be surprised if it gets an Oscar nomination for production design, and it certainly deserves it, as the sets were lavish and grand in scale, while also intricately detailed. Indeed, Agora was a true cinematic transportation back to ancient Egypt, and Amenabar deserves heaps of praise for at least pulling that off. While the relationships in the story were undeveloped, I could at least appreciate the visuals.
This film has the "swagger" to be confused for a big budget studio production, but it's also got some finer aspects worth appreciating thanks to the grand vision of Amenabar. Unfortunately, if he would've spent some more time developing the script, maybe it could've been even better. Agora also suffers ever so slightly from the Australia effect - at one point in the middle, the story jumps ahead a few years, and the split could be considered the perfect place to break the film in two. But I, for one, will argue that Agora is great the way it is, and I'll be happy to revisit it again in the future, if not to at least appreciate the epic historical story.
Cannes Rating: 7.5 out of 10