Ancient History Lesson: Agora

By avoiding the typical Hollywood epic treatment, Agora is perhaps the most intelligently conceived ancient history film since Gladiator.



Since director Ridley Scott, star Russell Crowe and film studio Dreamworks decided to \"unleash hell\" on audiences more than 10 years ago with the enormously successful Gladiator, other filmmakers and studios have tried - but failed - to out-Scott Sir Ridley with even more ridiculous budgets and bigger CGI spectacles. Director Wolfgang Petersen (once an interesting filmmaker) made the artless, but curiously enjoyable Troy, Training Day\'s Antoine Fuqua attempted to venture outside of his comfort zone of the crime genre with a ludicrously \'realist\' version of the oft-filmed Camelot legend with King Arthur and Oliver Stone took a(nother) battering from critics with the financial flop Alexander.

On the other hand, there is a new film out this week - the Spanish-produced, English-language Agora - that is perhaps the most intelligent and literate re-think of the \'swords and sandals\' genre since Gladiator. Co-written and directed by the versatile, strangely underrated Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes¸ The Others, The Sea Inside), Agora attempts to move away from the visual and emotive intensity of Scott\'s earlier film into the more erudite intelligence of Stanley Kubrick\'s political Spartacus or William Shakespeare\'s works Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

Rather than being an action film with pretentions to secular values such as reason and compassion, Agora plays like an intriguing, enthralling academic mystery throughout, thanks to intelligent writing (the film was co-written by Amenábar\'s frequent collaborator, Mateo Gil) and a fascinating central performance from the always-interesting British actress, Rachel Weisz.

In Agora, Weisz is well cast as the Greek philosopher Hypatia, a real-life mathematician and astronomer who taught Pagans and Christians alike in the 4th Century city of Alexandria. Against the backdrop of the Christians and Pagans\' increasing intolerance of one another - and, later, the fundamentalist Christian forces\' attempts to control the city and remove its Jewish inhabitants - the film also tells of a love triangle of sorts. Hypatia is attracted to her initially arrogant, but reasonable and fair-minded student Orestes (the versatile, charismatic Oscar Isaac) whilst her Christian slave Davus (Max Minghella, son of the late filmmaker Anthony) loves her from afar, as well.

As you can probably tell, Agora has a fairly busy plot (The Kingdom and Lebanon\'s Ashraf Barhom also plays a compelling and fervent Christian monk who lures Davus away from Hypatia), but one of the strengths of the film is that Amenábar does not resolve the film or any of these stories with exciting action set-pieces. Rather, the Spanish filmmaker is more interested in Hypatia\'s humanist, secular values, and focuses on her intellectual curiosity to uncover some of the secrets of the Earth and its place within the Universe.

Unlike Scott\'s epics - which tend to rely on more marketable, Joseph Campbell-inspired storytelling and overlay these conventions with concepts of power and control a la Kingdom of Heaven, which similarly attempts to comment on the importance of tolerance and understanding in a time of fanaticism and bigotry - the US$75 million Agora is genuinely interested in its ideas, featuring multiple sequences with Hypatia as she explores and experiments with the movement of the earth within the Universe. In this respect, Amenábar places these humanist concepts - rather than exciting action set-pieces - at the centre of his narrative.

Agora is also well served by placing the genuinely interesting figure of Weisz\'s Hypatia at the centre of the drama. One of Weisz\'s strengths as a performer is her capacity to dramatise and express internal thought in films such as The Constant Gardener and The Lovely Bones amongst others. In the many scenes with Hypatia experimenting with heliocentrism, she effectively communicates external composure, but subtle agitation in the character\'s attempts to wrestle her theories with her results.

Agora will be released in limited theatres November 18, including Palace Chauvel and Cremorne in New South Wales; Palace Brighton Bay, Carlton Nova, Village Southland Europa and Village Knox Europa in Victoria; Nova/Eastend in Adelaide; Cinema Paradiso in Perth; and on November 25 at Palace Centro in Brisbane.




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