‘Agora’: Rachel Weisz shines in peculiar historical drama

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 22, 2010 10:26pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

There are a couple of sequences in “Agora” where the pursuit of a scientific idea becomes as suspenseful as a car chase along a cliff: Where acting and camera angle and lighting conspire to make a revelation about the solar system and its planetary orbits into a true Hitchcock moment.

For that alone, “Agora” merits extra praise — but it deserves some attention, too, for its no-punches-pulled social comment and its stirring lead performance by Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz.

Plus, the movie is just odd.

It’s set in the fourth century, in Alexandria, home to a famous library and a community of different religious groups: pagans, Jews and the growing minority of Roman Christians.

Weisz plays Apatia, a historical figure much celebrated in the lore that followed her life and death. The film’s Apatia is notable for her intellectual prowess (there don’t seem to be a lot of women teaching in the local gymnasium) and her lack of interest in romance.

While tracking the various political quarrels in Alexandria, which lead to a violent conclusion, the movie also follows Apatia’s dogged inquiry into the behavior of the planets. The religious leaders of the day are insistent that Earth is at the center of the universe, with everything else revolving around it, but Apatia is starting to doubt.

Hundreds of years before Galileo, she seems to be getting the jump on figuring out the whole solar-system thing. That kind of blasphemy can get you killed, which is where some of the suspense in “Agora” comes from.

In depicting a world in which reason and rational thought are constantly bedeviled by ignorance and superstition, “Agora,” of course, is completely unrelated to the world we live in today.

Yeah, right. Actually, the parallels with present-day fundamentalism are so strong that it’s not hard to see why director Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others”) pursued this project right now. And he doesn’t disguise his complete identification with Apatia’s humanist heroine.

Weisz is quietly spellbinding in the role, and although she dominates the film, the key supporting parts are smartly cast as well. The intriguing Oscar Isaac (recently being nasty in “Robin Hood”) plays a suitor and a well-connected Alexandrian; Max Minghella a slave vulnerable to radical ideas; and the eerie Ashraf Barhom (a scene-stealer in “The Kingdom” and “Clash of the Titans”) a street agitator.

This is a peculiar film, with its strangely set-bound, sealed-off look and its earnest approach. Its sincerity is corny at times, yet its argument is potent. And its conclusion does not bode well for the rationalists.


A story based on the historical figure Apatia (a stirring performance by Rachel Weisz), who pursued new intellectual ideas about the universe in fourth-century Alexandria while religious fundamentalists got the upper hand. Director Alejandro Amenabar clearly intends parallels with our current times, and he succeeds, even if the movie feels earnestly cornball at times.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, violence.

Showing: Guild 45th.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Rose Freeman (center) and Anastasia Allison of The Musical Mountaineers play atop Sauk Mountain near Concrete in October 2017. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
Musical Mountaineers’ sunset serenade to launch Adopt a Stream campaign

The nonprofit aims to transform into an “accessible model of sustainability,” with solar panels, electric vehicles and more.

Coupeville Beekeeper Bruce Eckholm collects a swarm of bees in Oak Harbor (Photo courtesy of Gary Gillespie)
Coupeville beekeeper wards off large swarm

Oak Harbor residents were at home on Thursday when buzzing thundered from outside.

Leslie Davis, left, and Lyndsay Lamb, twin sister stars of HGTV's "Unsellable Houses" and 2004 Snohomish High School graduates, donated a private design session to the school's auction fundraiser for their 20-year reunion. (Photo provided)
Got $2,000? Bid on face time with HGTV’s ‘Unsellable Houses’ twins

The sisters are offering up themselves in a fundraiser for their Class of 2004 Snohomish High 20-year reunion.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

2024 Genesis G70 Sport Prestige RWD (Photo provided by Genesis)
2024 Genesis G70 Sport Prestige RWD

In my humble opinion, the 2024 Genesis G70 Sport Prestige sport sedan… Continue reading

Hyundai developed the 2024 Hyundai Kona platform with an electrified powertrain first. Exterior design of the gas-powered Kona (shown here) reflects the company’s transition toward EVs. (Photo provided by Hyundai)
2024 Hyundai Kona subcompact SUV is a grown-up

The feisty original has developed practicality and sophistication.

Joe Nichols will play Renegades in West Palm Beach on Saturday.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Country artist Joe Nichols comes to Tulalip Resort Casino on Saturday and the Edmonds Arts Festival offers three days of art.

Many famous design firms were built to last because sons joined fathers

Nineteenth-century silversmith Samuel Kirk’s legacy lives on today because his sons and grandson followed in his footsteps.

Evergreen Arboretum and Gardens to host 3-day plant-sale fundraiser

Described as “a gardener’s paradise,” the sale will feature plants and trees from individual gardeners and local nurseries.

Great Plant Pick: Bowle’s golden sedge

What: Carex elata aurea is a wonderful clump-forming, grass-like sedge with bright… Continue reading

Happy Father's Day greeting card for a gardener father. Garden tools in a round shape. Watercolor gardening tools with the sign "Happy Father's Day". Hand-drawn garden clipart.
Dads dig plants, too. This Father’s Day, find a gift to grow his garden

From maples and conifers to fountains, statuaries and tools, garden centers offer a diversity of gifts both fun and useful.

Louise Grevstad, 79, with her free ice cream outside of Safeway on Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds woman screamed — and got her free Safeway ice cream

Louise Grevstad, 79, was shut out from deals because she doesn’t have a smartphone. She didn’t think it was fair. So she went to the media.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.