The Chilean-born, Spain-based director Alejandro Amenábar has never made a movie anything like the one that came before it. His debut feature, Thesis, was a brainy, low-budget horror film about a grad student whose research into slasher movies leads her into the horrific world of snuff films. Abre Los Ojos (remade as the mediocre Vanilla Sky) was a surreal psychological thriller in the John Frankenheimer mode. Then there was The Others, a lush, atmospheric ghost story starring Nicole Kidman, and the somberly lyrical The Sea Inside, with Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic writer determined to end his own life. The only thing that ties Amenábar’s movies to one another is their keen intelligence and their love for formal invention.
Even given Amenábar’s status as a cinematic shape-shifter, Agora(Focus Features), a swords-and-sandals epic about the fall of Alexandria, still comes as a surprise. The title, from an ancient Greek word for “marketplace,” is apt: Though it’s nominally about the life of the Greek mathematician and astronomer Hypatia (the appropriately starry-eyed Rachel Weisz), the movie’s real protagonist is the Egyptian city of Alexandria, one of the last outposts of learning and civilization in the crumbling late Roman empire. The city was meticulously reconstructed on a vast set in Malta (with some help from digital animation), and we get to know this place—the pagan temple, the vast pillared library, the public marketplace of the title—as well as we know any of its characters. Amenábar loves to pull his camera up and away from the set—sometimes far, far away, so we can see the entire Nile Delta through clouds from outer space. This use of perspective reminds us of the fragility of the city, or any city, in its geohistorical context: When the camera returns to earth to accompany the characters’ travails, we have a sense of their relative tininess in the vast scope of time.
The human story of Agora is not only smaller in scale than the sweep of geohistory but considerably less interesting. Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer whose father (Michael Lonsdale) is the chief librarian of Alexandria, is beloved by both her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and her slave, Davus (Max Minghella). But Hypatia prefers to remain unattached, the better to puzzle over the limits of Ptolemaic astronomy: Why doesn’t Ptolemy’s model of a geocentric universe jibe with the evidence of the stars? Meanwhile, outside the library gates, religious unrest is brewing. Christian zealots are railing against Egyptian paganism, and Jews are protesting the fast-growing population of Christians. In the movie’s most spectacular set piece, the legendary library of Alexandria is destroyed by marauding Christian hordes as the pagan scholars flee with whatever scrolls they can carry.
The movie’s second half takes place an unspecified number of years later: Orestes has become the prefect of the city with Hypatia as his unofficial adviser. He’s also been forced to convert to Christianity, now the city’s prevailing religion; Hypatia refuses on principle, declaring that “[her] only religion is doubt.” Davus, now a member of a Taliban-like Christian militia called the Parabolani, continues to pine for Hypatia from afar. When the city’s de facto leader, an intolerant fanatic who will one day be known as Saint Cyril (Sami Samir), begins to crack down on nonbelievers, it becomes clear that Hypatia, who’s committed the triple crime of being a staunch nonbeliever, a learned teacher, and a woman, is in for it.
Agora shares an aesthetic brotherhood not with contemporary Gladiator-style epics about the ancient world but with the Rome-on-a-back-lot theatricality of movies like Spartacus. The dialogue can be stilted (“I feel that what you said can be refuted, but I don’t know how”), and the vast scope of the storytelling sometimes calls for artificial interventions, as when intertitles appear to catch us up on the political history of the Roman empire. But like Spartacus, this movie is engaging because it’s actually about something: the love of learning, the clash between science and religious faith, and the grim fact that political change often proceeds on the foundation of mob violence and genocide. Agora engages more effectively with this kind of big historical idea than it does with human drama. The movie’s most emotionally powerful moment has nothing to do with any individual character. It’s the looting of the library, the burning of all those irreplaceable documents from the early years of human history, that really makes you cry.