Review: Agora (2009)

Agora (2009)

Directed by: Alejandro Amenabar | 126 minutes | drama, adventure, romance, history | Actors: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Richard Durden, Sami Samir, Manuel Cauchi, Homayoun Ershadi, Oshri Cohen, Harry Borg, Charles Thake, Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid

The historical drama ‘Agora’ is the fifth feature film by the Chilean born Alejandro Amenábar. The four predecessors all made a deep impression, with number four, ‘Mar Adentro’, even winning an Oscar. At first sight there is a world of difference between the contemporary euthanasia problems of that Oscar winner and the historical squabbles of ‘Agora’. At second glance, the difference is negligible.

Although the story of ‘Agora’ takes place in the fifth century AD, we encounter all kinds of elements that are also current in the 21st century. Statues are torn down, books are burned, religious fanatics are martyred, and there’s even an army of peacekeepers in the form of the Roman legion charged with maintaining order in the religious-torn city of Alexandria. There, Jews, Christians and followers of the ancient Egyptian gods fight for power.

While it’s tempting to see ‘Agora’ as a frontal attack on religious fanaticism, it goes a little further than that. The film mainly focuses on the contradiction between dogmatism and autonomous thinking. Opposed to the fanatical fundamentalists in Alexandria is the philosopher Hypatia, who believes in asking the right question rather than in the infallibility of an answer found. Not that it benefits her. We see how the light of reason fades in favor of a rigid worldview, which would eventually lead to the dark ages again.

It delivers a depressing but urgent drama, in which bloody massacres alternate with political scheming and the desperate attempts of scientists to save their autonomous position. Every so often the camera zooms out to show the globe from space. As if the director wants to say that the earth and all the earthly plodding has hardly changed in all those centuries. Anyone looking at the religious, ideological and nationalistic dogmatism of the 21st century will not be wrong.

Those who don’t like this theme can marvel at the beautiful images of ancient Alexandria or enjoy the play of Rachel Weisz and Sami Samir. Slightly less successful are the abrupt transitions between violent scenes and contemplative scenes, while the romantic entanglements only hold things up. Nevertheless, ‘Agora’ is a must-see for lovers of intellectually stimulating drama. Less audience-friendly than ‘Mar Adentro’, but just as humane, urgent and convincing.

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