Relatively little concrete information is available about the Roman scholar/philosopher Hypatia; her writings only survive as fragments in other mathematicians’ works, and accounts of her life are fragmentary, contradictory, and given to a suspicious romanticism. But all the missing data makes it easy to craft a Hypatia story for any political era or agenda, as writer-director Alejandro Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil (previously partners on Abre Los Ojos and The Sea Inside) do with the beautifully shot but fundamentally shallow Agora. Ostensibly the story of Hypatia’s life, the film serves as a startlingly shrill attack on Christianity, positioned here largely as a breeding ground for hypocritical sadists who stand in direct opposition to reason and science.
As the film opens in Alexandria, Egypt in 391 A.D., Hypatia is teacher and mentor to a group of callow young men like Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Synesius (Rupert Evans), both of whom are destined for key leadership posts. But as the Roman Empire moves toward Christianity, religious tensions lead to a massacre of Christians and a siege against the Library Of Alexandria, considered a pagan holy place. The story unfolds with the stately yet effusive gravity and magnificent cinematography of swords-and-sandals epics like Gladiator, alternating huge, mob-driven conflicts with more intimate scenes that rarely feel connected. Little historical or social context is offered as moments are tossed out at random, either to illustrate known scenes from Hypatia’s life, or to set up further interpersonal tensions: Orestes publicly declares his love for Hypatia, who later spurns him. Her house slave Davus (Max Minghella) nurses a similar crush, but finds a compelling draw in Christianity. Alone, Hypatia muses her way through great discoveries in astronomy that no one of her time can appreciate. Meanwhile, the next violent mob setpiece looms.
Weisz makes for a vivid, charismatic Hypatia, but the script lets her down: She’s a symbol and an ideal, not a character, caught in a series of bloody confrontations that wring out emotion without addressing the motivations and politics that would make these events into a coherent story. Other characters serve even more proscribed functions—particularly the Christian leader Cyril (Sami Samir), presented as an incomprehensible, rapacious monster, and the nearly mute Davus, whose love and mercy provide the only apologia here for a thuggish, nihilistically hateful Christianity. It all feels like a clumsy metaphor that comes years too late for the political zeitgeist. And lest anyone miss the point, Amenábar repeatedly pulls back to a God’s-eye view of Earth, letting the roaring voices of the murderous mobs echo dimly over their barely visible country. Agora could use considerably fewer of these ham-fisted calls for perspective, and considerably more perspective of its own.