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Featured TV on DVD Review: Agora

October 16th, 2010

Agora - Buy from Amazon

Agora opened in its native Spain back in October of last year and was a huge hit in that market. It also earned 13 Goya nominations, winning 7 of them. On the other hand, here it just earned mixed reviews and never managed to expand beyond 17 theaters. Was something lost in translation?

The Movie

Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia, a mathematician who lived in the city of Alexandria in what was then Roman held Egypt. However, at the time, Rome was far into its decline and the city was in a bit of disarray as a result. The main conflict was a religious one, as the Christians are in the process of becoming the dominate force after being persecuted not too long ago. This puts them in direct conflict with the Pagans, those that still follow the gods of Egpyt. Hypatia, a teacher at the great library, is often at the center trying to keep the peace. Although she is a Pagan, she has both Christian and Pagan students.

A Christian preacher attacks a Pagan in the agora, the town square were people go to argue about politics, philosophy, academia, or in this case, religion. After this attack, and other less egregious insults to the Pagan Gods, the Pagan priests want to retaliate. Hypatia appeals for decency and calm, but her father, Theon is also greatly concerned about the rise in power of the Christians, who are a lot less tolerant of other faiths than the Romans or the Jews were. Theon, and others, attempt to deal with this problem by escalating the violence, but they underestimated the strength of the Christians.

It isn't long before the Christians are the dominant force in the area, which causes Hypatia problems when her work on the cosmos reveals that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, but that the sun is. Furthermore, she calculates that the Earth travels around the sun not in a perfect circle, but in an elliptic orbit, which is heresy on top of heresy.

In addition to the religious extremism versus academic freedom plot thread, there is also a more romantic angle with Hypatia as the object of affection for both one of her students, Oreste, and her slave, Davus. At one point, Oreste publicly proclaims his love for Hypatia by sayings, and I'm paraphrasing here, "You complete me." To which Hypatia responds with, and again I'm paraphrasing, "Girlie bits are gross."

On a serious note, for a woman of Hypatia's accomplishment, for any woman to boil her entire essence down to just her menstruation cycle is some pretty heavy self-loathing. Either that, or that was one hell of a way to reject a marriage proposal.

Agora can be looked upon as a simple biopic of Hypatia, and in that aspect, Rachel Weisz is able to give one hell of a performance in the lead. As a study of the battle between science and superstition, it is also a success; however, I can see why neither of these helped it at the box office. Let's face it, how many people reading this knew who Hypatia was before this movie came out? I'll let you in on a secret, the number of people writing this who knew who Hypatia was before this movie was made is zero. I learned about her while doing research for this movie. Also, being a pro-science movie isn't exactly going to sell tickets. The cliché argument is to compare the number of newspapers with horoscopes with the number of newspapers with science columns. (Having the Christians portrayed as the bad guys virtually guaranteed the film would never expand.)

The easiest way to sell the movie is by using the romance, but this is the weakest part of the movie. The Sword & Sandal period piece has more popular appeal than the academic thread, but that too was complicated by the religious motivations of the combatants.

Agora shines as a biopic and as a film that depicts the struggles of science vs. superstition, and it does look great. (Although it was a limited release here, it was not an inexpensive movie to make and as a period piece, it was money well spent.) Hopefully it will be seen by more, but I fear that won't be the case.

The Extras

There are plenty of extras on the DVD, starting with an audio commentary track by the director, Alejandro Amenábar, who is Spanish. Yes, the track is in Spanish, but there are subtitles. He also sits down for a minute-long introduction to the movie. Next up is a massive hour-long making of documentary that starts at the initial inception for the movie, had that original idea been turned into a movie, it would have been a very different film. Other parts talk about the creation of the sets, the costumes, post-production, etc. Very in-depth. There are seven deleted scenes with a total running time of just over 10 minutes. Finally, there are two galleries.

The Verdict

Considering how few theaters Agora played in, it actually did surprisingly well at the box office here. And given how few theaters is played in, the DVD has a surprisingly good selection of extras. Its target audience is probably too small to hope it would be a much bigger hit, but is deserves to be seen by a lot more people and it is a solid purchase. My only complaint is that there is no Blu-ray version being released here.


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