The most enthralling historical epic many Americans may never see, Agora is Alejandro Amenábar's bold and strident critique of religious demagoguery, which may be too bold and too strident for most Christians. The Christians, whose teachings were sweeping through Roman-controlled Egypt during the film's fourth-century A.D. setting, are certainly not the only villains here -- men of all religious persuasions, or lack thereof, are shown committing unspeakable acts to protect their power and place. Religion itself is the antagonist in this film full of big ideas, especially as it conflicts with scientific pursuit. For viewers inclined toward science to begin with, and for religious viewers able to place the film's themes in a historical context (rather than taking it as merely a metaphor for current debates on faith), the reward is a cinematic achievement of uncommon magnitude and craftsmanship.
The setting is Alexandria, Egypt, 391 A.D., and the pagan ruling class has seen an influx in the number of followers of Jesus Christ within city walls. Initially they constitute a minority, and the astronomical theories of Ptolemy, as taught by the respected philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), are among the many pursuits of scientific knowledge that remain the dominant mode of thinking. But as the number and influence of Christians increase, outbreaks of violence in Agora square become common, and a standoff forces the Roman emperor to choose sides. In a decree, he allows the Christians to ransack Alexandria Library, which contains all the recorded scientific wisdom of the ancient world, as Hypatia and her followers hastily depart, carrying armfuls of scrolls along with them. Hypatia also frees her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who secretly loves her but joins the horde of attacking Christians to embrace his freedom. As the years pass and numerous pagans convert to Christianity, including Hypatia's devoted student Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who becomes Alexandria's prefect, a calm resumes in which the scientific-thinking community becomes a barely tolerated minority. But as a charismatic Christian leader (Sami Samir) gains power and begins enforcing conversions as a way to wipe out both Jews and pagans, Hypatia's studies of astronomy, her integrity -- even her very life -- are endangered.
The twin impressions created by Amenábar's opus are that it is a lovingly created, labor-intensive, detail-oriented epic of the grandest order, and that its controversial ideas make it a high-risk, expensive arthouse film. It has its share of the skirmishes that are expected in the more traditional sword-and-sandal epics, and Agora was undoubtedly pitched in those terms. But it deviates from so many of the traditional expectations that it becomes a wondrous, anomalous cinematic gamble. For starters, its protagonist is essentially one of the world's first feminists, a brilliant thinker who shunned all the roles expected of her as a woman. As Hypatia, Weisz gives an assured performance that feels like an intentional mix of classical and current sensibilities, a choice which underscores the modern resonance of these issues. The subject matter is the far more shocking risk, as the film basically paints early Christians as fascists and witch hunters. Even if they were, this is a difficult reality for Christian viewers to swallow, especially when Amenábar creates such a stark contrast between Christian doctrine and the comparatively enlightened scientific principles.
What's really amazing is that despite all these risks, no expense has been spared in building a rich, three-dimensional re-creation of Alexandria, teeming with thousands of non-digital extras, and viewed from as many camera angles as one can imagine. Amenábar especially favors filming from on high, shooting riots from a hundred feet in the air -- and sometimes from on really high, from the distance of a satellite looking down on the blue earth below. Whether this is the perspective of God or the celestial bodies, only Amenábar knows.
The film's themes have awakened in the director an unforgettable, outside-the-box style of filmmaking, one that suffuses his every decision. As Xavi Giménez's camera captures all the nooks and crannies of the massive set erected in Malta, it's backed by Dario Marianelli's stunning score. What tends to get lost in big epics is the intimacy of acting performances, but Amenábar has his finger on that, too. In addition to Weisz's solid work, Oscar Isaac impresses as a political figure twisting between his conscience and his desire for self-preservation, and Max Minghella simmers as an impulsive commoner who questions his own allegiances and assumptions when his church requires him to always be certain.
Spain's highest-grossing film of 2009, Agora must make an impression on a country whose faith is part of its national identity to have any hope of recouping its production costs. If viewers can see through to the deeper themes of tolerance and compassion, or simply want to experience the awe of this enriching spectacle, perhaps Agora will in fact spread outward from its limited American release, persuading converts like a powerful idea.