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A Historical Epic

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar has decided to tackle a historical epic concerning science and religion, among other themes. His first film since 2004's brilliant The Sea Inside, his philosophical filmmaking doesn't quite work in such big proportions. The sets are breathtaking (not immediately identifiable as CGI) and the acting is quite good, but in the end it feels bland and like hundreds of other epics of its kind.

Taking place in ancient Alexandria, Egypt circa 391 AD, Agora tells the story of three figures against the backdrop of religious upheaval. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a brilliant Greek philosopher obsessed with answering the mystery of the cosmos. Her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) is in love with her and becomes directly embroiled with the increasing religious politics. Then there's the silent Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia's slave who also has an unrequited love for the philosopher. Through these characters we see the Roman Empire impose Christianity upon Alexandria as the landscape becomes more hostile and religion is all that matters.

Where the film succeeds is in creating a realistic, if not infuriating, society where religion trumps all else. It trumps character, science and, of course, beliefs. As the great Library of Alexandria is destroyed amidst a Christian riot on the Pagans, we see just how much religion could damage society.

Whether or not Amenabar is attempting to illustrate how little has changed, or how much religion can still incite war, is unclear. What is clear is that Amenabar doesn't take sides in the religious war but looks down upon all religious doctrine in showing its destructive powers.

Caught between the politics and the fighting is Hypatia as she strives to answer how our solar system works. She doesn't see a need for religion within philosophy and only seeks answers through constant questions. Those around her follow blindly rarely stopping to ask themselves why.

There isn't much characterization, which is perhaps the filmís biggest downfall, and we watch as the three characters go their separate ways to succeed in what they desire. For Hypatia, thatís the freedom to teach and research; for Orestes itís to gain power as he becomes the Prefect; and for Davus itís a struggle to find his place in society as he chooses to become a Christian mainly as a way to secure his freedom.

Amenabar asks good questions, and while it may seem that the film is anti-religion, it merely shows how human fear has manifested itself through religion. Hypatia is the antithesis to this fear as she strives to ask questions whereas those around her fear those questions as they may disprove much of what their beliefs are founded on.

Unfortunately, the sum of its parts doesnít equal the whole. The idea is there, but itís executed poorly. The requisite throat chanting for any ancient saga is ever present to the point of wondering whether you're watching The Gladiator and the characters come off as one-dimensional despite its two hours length.

Agora is a good film with a solid backbone, but it lacks excitement and overall story structure and, unfortunately, much originality. Amenabar is a great filmmaker but this one may have been out of his reach.