Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Agora": Review

Agora (2009)
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Evans, Ashraf Barhom
Grade: C -
*Head on over to In Review Online to read this piece, along with reviews of other current releases*

It's become commonplace for Rachel Weisz to emerge from conflict with supreme dignity, whether she's battling Egyptian mummies, political corruption, or—in this case—pesky Christians. She's the voice of reason and there’s not much to question in her serene gaze. In his latest project, Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others,” “The Sea Inside”) casts Weisz in the role of Roman philosopher Hypatia, who becomes caught in the tide of an early Christian uprising in 4th-century Alexandria. Amenábar fetishizes the period, flaunting the visual splendor of temples and statues that were specifically reconstructed for the film, and littering the production with swooping aerial shots and lengthy pans that enhance its sense of scope. But his indulgent approach lessens the movie's impact as a historical drama, and his tendency to glorify neatly placed props and ultra-clean lines distract us from Alexandria’s volatile populous. Its citizens are engulfed by his set, never seeming to truly inhabit it, consigned to the status of images on a postcard or guests at a costume party.

A rather long prelude of events leads to the collapse of Alexandria’s Roman temple, setting in motion a tumultuous future for Hypatia’s pagan community, which must now deal with the pressures of conforming to Christian ideology. While more traditional religious “epics” (e.g. “Ben Hur” or “Spartacus”) deal with a community's active rebellion against change, “Agora” feels like a meditative overview, much freer in structure. Amenábar isn’t preoccupied with displaying battles and laying down definitive plot points, so he's able to address the principal theme of faith versus philosophy through Hypatia’s passive brand of resistance. She navigates the sparse streets while contemplating whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa, blithely unconcerned with religion and intellectually superior to the peripheral squabble. As a critique of society’s general intolerance towards nonconformity, there is at least something to say here, but it soon becomes clear that “Agora” isn't the film to say it.

So Amenábar must resort to exploiting Hypatia’s status as a virgin and all-around savior to juice up an otherwise languid affair. Openly courted by resident poser Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and secretly courted by lowly slave Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia remains cold to the advances of both. After each man lays down an ultimate display of affection, she gives one the “gift” of her menstrual blood and frees the other from slavery. Her relative softness towards Davus suggests that she might care enough about a man to spurn a life of study and chastity, but Weisz's reluctance to portray Hypatia as anything other than an untouchable beacon neutralizes any glimmer of real desire. When introduced, the romance in “Agora” is theatrical and hollow, over-dramatized to mitigate the fact that the inherent munificence of its radiant subject does not extend to two-and-a-quarter-hours of solid entertainment.

Weisz is perhaps too old to play her part convincingly—not in any cosmetic sense, but rather in the sense that her intellectual assuredness prevents Hypatia's dreamer characteristics from being fully realized onscreen. The film would have been better served if Amenábar had allowed Weisz to exercise some creative license with Hypatia, finding conflict within herself and the transitory state of Roman life rather than pitting herself against the rest of the world. “Agora” falls hesitantly into the middle ground either because Amenábar is unwilling to make a film about a virgin who doesn’t entertain the idea of sex, or (more likely) because he’s unable to concede fault or doubt in his heroine. Likewise, the redundancy of picturesque visuals is telling. The ante is upped, but there’s a tentative refusal on the filmmakers' parts to let the history speak for itself, a sensational endeavor to fashion a love triangle out of very little, and a suppression of any concrete discussion that briefly emerges. Christianity conquers, Roman culture teeters on the brink of extinction, and “Agora” creeps into the realm of the disingenuous.

1 comment:

Tim O'Neill said...

Actually, Weisz is rather too *young* to play Hypatia, who was probably pushing 60 when she was murdered. But the movie distorts the history in all kinds of other ways to suit a rather simplistic agenda. See http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2010/05/hypatia-and-agora-redux.html for details.