Churls accuse Hollywood of promoting a radical leftist agenda, but it’s difficult imagining any West Coast studio shelling out $70 million for the tale of Hypatia, a proto-feminist mathematician, astronomer and materialistic philosopher gorily assassinated by fundies in the early days of Christianity. It’s a hard-earned low point in Christian history, the symbolic death of Classical antiquity and an age of reason and science at the hands of religious zealots—in short, a tough sell to middle America. So despite being filmed in English, starring an Oscar winner and wearing its massive budget on its sleeve, it’s no shock Agora hails from Europe (Spain, specifically), where it’s been treated like the second coming of Gladiator. (Here, it’s being quietly shipped around art houses.) It’s an alternate-universe blockbuster in which atheists are the heroic victims—and, alas, it’s just as annoyingly reductive as its Hollywood-bred counterpart.
Rachel Weisz plays the secular martyr, who’s happily uncovering and teaching about the planet’s mysteries in 4th-century Alexandria when nascent Christianity infests her home. She watches in horror as angry mobs, outraged by all things pagan, sack the library and as the church bullies its way into the city’s secular government. While those around her succumb, Hypatia remains steadfast and, toward the end, beatific.
There’s something ballsy about the way Agora, with its handsome sets and scores of extras, swipes the language of Christian epics to make a film in which Christians are the bad guys. The filmmakers refuse to whitewash this dark tale for touchy audiences; this is the story of science and logic meeting religion, and science gets shivved.
Nevertheless, artless filmmaking is artless filmmaking. The Christians wear permanent scowls and even dress in black. Director Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes, The Others) has only two moves: gruesome crane shots and shaky handheld. Abetted by Dario Marianelli’s ears-boxing score, he wrings the audience’s neck at all times, lest they grow restless over the jerky pacing of his and Mateo Gil’s script.
Weisz keeps the showboating to a minimum; when Hypatia’s doing science, in laughably written scenes, you can spot traces of her excitable Brothers Bloom eccentric. But she’s often left stranded, staring sad-eyed and slack-jawed as the director, like his film’s fundamentalist baddies, lays waste to nuance and complexity.