Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Richard Durden, Sami Samir, Manuel Cauchi, Homayoun Ershadi, Oshri Cohen, Harry Borg, Charles Thake, Yousef 'Joe' Sweid
Written by: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil
Directed by: Alejandro Amenábar
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 127
Date: 05/17/2009

Agora (2010)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Awkward Christian Soldiers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar (who was born in Chile) started his career with a handful of terrific genre films, including Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Others (2001). These were so full of great ideas that Amenábar quickly became a director to watch; he could potentially inject some much-needed life into the horror, sci-fi and thriller genres. Unfortunately, that's not what Amenábar wanted; he wanted respect. So he made a disease-of-the-week movie called The Sea Inside (2004) and won an Oscar for it.

Now he's back with another movie, Agora. It, too, tries to tackle Great and Important themes, perhaps with one eye on another Oscar. But it also deals with supernatural elements and a certain kind of horror. It takes place in the fourth century in Alexandria, Egypt, which is under Roman rule. The beautiful philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) teaches her students about gravity, the stars, and other secrets of the known universe. Her most apt student is actually her smitten slave boy, Davus (Max Minghella). Outside the walls of learning, the streets are roiling with revolt. The Christians are on the rise, and are ready -- in their own benevolent way -- to destroy in the name of God everyone that disagrees with them. The good, educated, white-clad Pagans try to fight, but are quickly outnumbered.

Years later, Davus has chosen to join the Christians in exchange for his freedom, but after months of hauling dead bodies around on carts, he begins to wonder if maybe there isn't more to life. Some of Hypatia's students, including her admirer Orestes (Oscar Isaac), are now in government, and are doing their best to protect her, but the Christians have decided that strong, smart females are bad news. Meanwhile, Hypatia is right on the verge of discovering the secrets of the earth's rotation around the sun.

Amenábar tries to present all this on a fairly intimate scale, and he pulls off a number of good scenes. The dialogue doesn't sound wooden, and some of the character dramas are fairly effective, at least in the first half. Amenábar is clearly perturbed about people killing each other over a difference of opinion, and it's easy to get riled up and involved in his sermon. But when the movie jumps to several years later at the halfway point, all the momentum just goes out the window. The balance tilts away from characters and mystery toward messages. In the second half, Hypatia's scenes are considerably more engaging -- as she searches to unravel mysteries -- than the scenes with the angry zealots yelling at each other.

But because it turns into a sermon, the movie stumbles, drags on too long, and loses track of its characters. In the second half, Hypatia has a new assistant (Homayoun Ershadi, from Taste of Cherry), and we're never sure of their relationship, and poor Max Minghella spends the entire second half of the film sulking and scowling. Regardless of the message, a movie needs to be a movie, and it's just too heavy and awkward to be effective. Without flow or characters, it's history.

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