Friday, May 21, 2010
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Rachel Weisz
Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Sami Samir, Rupert Evans
Michael Lonsdale, Ashraf Barhom
Agora is a highly ambitious, if not entirely effective, parable that uses the life of Hypatia of Alexandria to deliver its views on modern times.
The famous philosopher is played by Rachel Weisz who with her timeless, ethereal beauty does justice to the crush the director has on the character.
His Hypatia is a strong willed woman who becomes the center of men's lives and ignites passion, fear and admiration within them.
One of them is her slave Davus (Minghella) who secretly becomes a Christian to see if this god will grant his wish of making Hypatia fall for him. Another is her pupil Orestes (Isaac) who declares his love for her in song form.
But she remains indifferent to their feelings and dedicates her time to the study of the universe, particularly what is its center and how gravity, stars, circles, orbs and planets all interfere with one another.
Because we know that most of the topics she's obsessed with, became concepts until centuries later (and the film never really makes her discoveries exciting enough), Amenábar has an easy way to get rid of her emotional depth and turn her into a selfish character whose obsession with knowledge isn't as prominent as her detachment from humanity.
When in the film's centerpiece (a remarkable scene that teases us of the epic possibilities the film loses), the Christians destroy the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia sobs at the loss of books and not at the destruction of life around her.
Her dedication to the written word and science at least distract her from the conflicts between Christians, Pagans and Jews.
Christians being the new religion and all try to impose their views on everyone and seek to exterminate those who disagree. We all know how this went but instead of rubbing in our faces how misled our conception of religion has been, the film really turns the Christians into outlandish movie villains.
Fully dressed in black they wreak havoc across Alexandria, screaming "hallelujah" and looking like Satan's minions.
While it's true that Christianism (especially Roman Catholicism) has proven in the last decades to be plagued with immorality and corruption, what does the film achieve by reinforcing viciousness?
What can we make of the film's discourse when it only explores motives on the surface? The director seemingly wants to say something about the way intolerance has shaped history but mostly ends up revealing his own shortsightedness.
It's quite clear that he's on the side of "reason", seeing how he tries to glorify Hypatia in every scene and Weisz does a convincing job playing someone who's both muse and heroine.
"I feel that what you say can be refuted but now I don't know how" she says at one point and Weisz provides her for a second with a warmth that reassures us that she will find how before she's skinned alive by Christians in the end.
Agora's biggest setback is its inability to see its limitations. When it becomes clear that the screenplay (written by Amenábar and Mateo Gil) doesn't know how to create characters, the director should've worked with their flaws instead of perpetuating them.
Seeing how Davus, Orestes and Hypatia all have secret, perhaps unjustified, motivations, why not use them as metaphors of selfcenteredness and its relation to eternal intolerance?
It's clear to the audience at least that because all the characters are living exclusively for themselves they're unable to perceive the world around them.
In the same way the movie, in its effort to rediscover the center of the universe, ended up losing its own.