Everything about Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar’s movies (The Sea Inside, The Others) is intimate—from story to tone to setting. Until now. His newest film, the visually stunning Agora, is a brainy epic that explores what happens when religion, politics and science mingle and clash. Set in Egypt in 391 AD, is his most ambitious film since the genre-bending Open Your Eyes (the film that inspired the lackluster Hollywood remake, Vanilla Sky).
The secret nerd in you will love Agora’s main character, Hypatia, a real-life mathematician, scientist and philosopher who lived in the culturally advanced port city of Alexandria. Played by a perfectly cast Rachel Weisz, Hypatia is way ahead of her time: She sidesteps marriage and dedicates herself instead to a job as a teacher—exceedingly rare at a time when women were nearly invisible outside the home. Scenes of her teaching a class of men, taking on intellectual pursuits (no less than trying to figure out how the solar system worked) and advising the city’s leaders are rewarding—though a bit preachy.
When the movie tries to marry those scenes with the bigger story it’s telling—the fledgling Christian religion’s rise in the city means bloodshed on a massive scale and the destruction of Alexandria’s reknowned library and schools—the movie seriously drags. That story is told largely through the two men who love Hypatia: Orestes, one of her older students (an engaging Oscar Isaac, the Latino who plays King John in Robin Hood), and Davus, her slave (a beyond gorgeous Max Minghella). Christianity appeals to Davus mainly as freedom from slavery and he becomes one of a band of roving religious enforcers/thugs. When Orestes rises to regent of Alexandria, his loyalty to Hypatia, who often publicly advises him, becomes a huge liability. With Hypatia absorbed in her own intellectual world for most of this, it seems like you’re watching two different flicks.
Visually, the movie is beautifully detailed without seeming like it was filmed in a Hollywood backlot or totally constructed from CGI. Costumes weapons, streets—even the movie’s historically correct depiction of the racial diversity of the time and place—all look real and immediate, as if you were watching history through a the camera. But looks are not enough to pull the story together. Chopped down from 144 minutes (the length at which it made festival rounds last year) to 126, the editing still feels loose, the ends not quite meshing together to make a whole.