Review: Agora

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The Pitch: Particle Man: The Movie.

The Review: The battle between science and religion has occupied and fascinated man for centuries. Similarly, the battles between religions have defined our culture and our environment on almost more occasions that you can count. But there’s still something to be said about a film which is willing to look at such clashes through modern eyes. Not only Spain’s highest grossing movie of 2009, but a source of controversy with the Catholic church in Spain (maybe not unsurprisingly), this takes historical events and uses them to highlight the divides between people and their often dramatic effects. Any film willing to tackle this part of history is almost inflammatory by default, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an era worth exploring.

Agora feels in some respects like an old-fashioned swords and sandals epic, and indeed was filmed in some of the same locations as Gladiator and Troy. But there are only occasional flourishes of violence, although it must be said that when they come, director Alejandro Amenábar doesn’t skimp on the details. This is a sumptuous film visually, the camera regularly panning and swooping over the streets to capture the action when it comes, and the CGI-augmented zoom-ins from space to Alexandria are especially impressive, giving a true sense of the scale of events.

But any film must stand or fall on its script and its performances, and thankfully Agora delivers on both counts. The script is divided into tracking two historical periods, and the gap between the two allows us to see the effect of changing attitudes on the characters and their world, while examining different aspects of the conflicts in both. Rachel Weisz is completely believable as Hypatia, the scientist who favours philosophy over religion and Michael Lonsdale as her father brings instant gravitas to proceedings. The rest of the cast are less prominent, but there is solid support across the board and the tone never wavers.

People are inspired, sometimes to great rights or wrongs, by their passions or beliefs, and sometimes their judgement can be clouded. As such, I think it’s only fair to point out when writing this review that I am both a mathematician (my subject of study at university) and a Christian (other religions are available). So this film will maybe have appealed to me more on both those counts. But there is still plenty to enjoy here, even if you’re an agnostic biologist. The messages from the film, about the importance of morality regardless of belief and the willingness to question yourself are still relevant to all of us. Not only are movies with this kind of scale done well uncommon, but also movies prepared to engage the mind as well as the heart aren’t as common as they maybe should be. So for efforts like this, we should be truly thankful.

Why see it at the cinema: To be able to absorb in full every last detail of the perfectly realised world of 4th century Egypt, and to take in the stunning sights and sounds at their best.

The Score: 9/10

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