One of the big stories in the last few weeks has been the way "Agora" opened in Spain to tremendous box-office although it couldn't find an American distributor after spending much of the year playing various festivals, including Toronto, which is where I saw it.

Alejandro Amenábar is a great filmmaker who doesn't always make great movies.  He's got incredible technical control, he is ambitious, and he always seems determined to engage his audience both emotionally and intellectually. He's only made five features, starting with "Tesis," which he made when he was only in his early 20s, followed a year later by "Abre Los Ojos," which was remade in the US as "Vanilla Sky."  He's one of the rare international directors who didn't have to sell out his identity completely when he made an English-language film, and "The Others" is an effective and stylish ghost story that was a sizable commercial hit.  "The Sea Inside" is a strongly emotional picture, all mood and heartbreak, and features a very strong performance by Javier Bardem.  As much as I like and respect all those films, I don't love any of them.  He has yet to make a film, in my opinion, that transcends its individual elements to stand as a coherent and satisfying whole.

"Agora," alas, does not change that.

Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia of Alexandria, a tremedously significant historical figure, a philosopher, a mathematician, and an astronomer, and I can see why Weisz was attracted to the role.  Hypatia's a remarkable figure, and Weisz is a good fit for the role.  She projects warmth and strength and keen intelligence, something that's been true for her whole career, and those are exactly the qualities she needs in order to make Hypatia real.  As the film opens, she and her father are trusted figures in Alexandria, teachers, custodians of the famous Alexandrian Library, and they are intoxicated by the pursuit of knowledge.  

There is religious unrest brewing in Egypt, though, as well as turmoil over the idea of slavery, still very much a part of the social structure.  Hypatia is more interested in life as a thinker than life as a woman, and as a result, she spurns suitors with a ferocity that will eventually come back to haunt her.

At heart, this film is a debate about ideas.  There are characters in it, sure, but they only register as different positions on the various subjects being bandied about, and not as real people.  Hypatia is the most fully-rounded character in the film, and even so, she's more of a symbol than a person.  Gil Mateo, Amenábar's frequent screenwriting collaborator, helped him shape the material, and there are plenty of things about the script that are interesting, plenty of ideas that are batted back and forth that are invigorating.  But the more the film tries to pump things up for dramatic significance, the more the paper-thin characters turn out to be an issue.  Max Minghella plays Davus, a slave who works for Hypatia while harboring a secret love for her, and his passion is a plot device more than something we can understand from the relationship we see onscreen.  He ends up on the other side of the religious divide that starts to tear Alexandria apart, and again... it's more a matter of setting up a dynamic than anything that is earned by the characters.

Amenábar once again demonstrates a real facility for an image in the way he handles the recreation of this ancient world and some of the larger-scale moments, but overall, the period material left me cold.  I don't think he ever makes it seem real.  It's handsomely reproduced, but it still feels like a museum piece.  And when Hypatia's ultimate fate comes calling for her, he shies away from the horror of it.  I know he's not aiming for exact historical accuracy, especially since history is hotly divided on the truth of who Hypatia was, but her death is legendary because of just how awful it was.  And here, the film blinks at the exact moment that it should take a clear-eyed rational look at what extremism can eventually become. 

There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not American distributors are missing out by leaving "Agora" unreleased, but I don't think there's a market for this one here.  There will be some audiences who find the intellectual debate of the film interesting, but it strikes me as nearly impossible to market, even with Weisz working her hardest.

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