Having long been an amateur student of this period, I found the subject matter and theme fascinating. I was reminded of a book I read long ago, The Vanished Library (Luciano Canfora), which didn't go into the story of Hypatia, but did develop the entire mystery of what happened to the Great Library of Alexandria, which was established by the Ptolemies who ruled after Alexander the Great, a repository of all knowledge in the ancient world.
I have no issues whatsover with any "artistic license" that was taken with historical fact. The criticisms I've heard here are completely irrelevant to good storytelling with a message. The message itself was both powerful and relevant to today. Not just in regard to dangers of a resurgent Christianity, as some I know (not in this group) have mentioned. Not just as a parallel to the rise of Islam in the modern world. (The infiltration of Islam into Western countries with the spread of Sharia law, especially.) But metaphorically -- the barbarian, reason-hating Christians could just as well represent the post-Modern Left sacking the legacy of Western civilization and butchering Reason.
The directing was excellent, and stayed true to the "view from space" that was established in the opening sequence: there were many fascinating shots directly overhead the ancient Library of Alexandria, showing the Christians and other Alexandrians running, fighting, fleeing through the streets. I felt the godlike perspective of watching the harmless, random, even childish antics of ants, and how whatever greatness the people of that time had achieved -- in the Library, in the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the seven Wonders of the ancient world), and more -- could have been reduced to such self-destructive behavior.
The art direction was possibly the finest I've ever seen. I marvel at how they created the sets, mattes, CG and costumes. I couldn't tell which I was looking at, but I felt like I was in 391 AD. The cinematography and lighting direction were also superb -- almost every frame in that movie I could frame and put on my wall.
Another big shortcoming of the script was that it needed a stronger love story. Yes, the movie was about a woman who was devoted to ideas. But should the archetype of ideas represent a Platonic Ideal, divorced from Earthly concerns? Yes, the movie displayed Orestes' love for Hypatia, as well as the conflicted love of her slave, Davus. But it all had a very Victorian quality: repressed and formal that was just barely compensated by Davus nearly raping Hypatia during the sacking of the Great Library. Contrast, however, with the similar scene of Roark and Dominique in The Fountainhead. (With Roark compared to Hypatia, and Hypatia compared to Dominique...)
What was very good about the script is what it attempted, how close it came to achieving it, and how it attempted it. Hypatia's fascination with the heavens was a brilliant counterpoint to the earthiness of the barbarians. I felt this from the opening sequence as we viewed the Earth from space. Not only did this make a subtle parallel to Hypatia's love of the Heavens that was only evident as the story progressed (and thereby her love of reason was heavenly...), but it conveyed that eerie sense I alluded to earlier, that I was in 391 AD. This was aided by photography that had the feel of looking at a color photograph faded with age.
The only thing that took me out of 391 AD even slightly was the opening text crawl establishing the setting and period, and the text at the end describing Hypatia's fate. I can't criticize the need for something, given that it was a historical drama, but my temptation would have been to delete the text crawl at the opening, end the film on fade to black, wait 15 seconds, and then run all the text as a separate footnote to the story.
In general, the script was somewhat beyond the ability of the screenwriters. I say "somewhat" -- they didn't fail, but they didn't succeed spectacularly. The action wasn't strongly motivated enough, the conflicts weren't developed enough, and the relationships didn't exhibit enough passion or impact. The dialogue did have it's moments, but were more about competence than brilliance.
Overall, the motivation of the action could have been alleviated with more screen time (at least an extra half-hour), but the development of the human conflicts and dialogue simply needed a stronger writer.
Overall, it reminded me somewhat of 1492, Conquest of Paradise--a movie that wasn't bad, but was far from great, either, though which ended on one fine scene. Columbus, back from the New World, is confronted by Sanchez in the court of Queen Isabella (if I'm remembering correctly), a "practical" man in the seat of government who held the idealistic Columbus in contempt:
Sanchez: [disgusted] You're a dreamer.If not for this final scene, I'd say 1492 wouldn't be worth watching. But it did have this scene. Agora needed something like it to counter the terrible tragedy of the end, Hypatia's death. However, Agora did have a stronger storyline, and while its best scenes were somewhat more diluted than the final scene of 1492, the overall effect was stronger, and this redeemed the movie with me.
Columbus: [looking out a window] Tell me, what do you see?
Sanchez: [pausing] I see rooftops, I see palaces, I see towers, I see spires that reach... to the sky! I see civilization!
Columbus: All of them built by people like me. No matter how long you live, Sanchez, there is something that will never change between us. I did it. You didn't.
As a last note, a day after watching Agora, I had an odd feeling -- of deja vu. I realized I identified strongly with, of all people ... Hypatia. It must be a sign of the times.