TIFF09 REVIEW: Agora [2009]

“I was forgiven, but now I can’t forgive”

I will not deny the fact that Alejandro Amenábar is one of my favorite directors at the moment. With the eerily creepy The Others and the emotionally wrought Mar adentro, how could he not be? And why have I not seen Abre los ojos yet? Disgraceful I know. Well, you can imagine my immense excitement when finding out his new 4th century Egyptian epic Agora would be playing as a gala presentation in Toronto for TIFF. The trailer made it seem very unlike his past movies, looking to be on a much larger scale in comparison. But it was Amenábar, so I had complete faith that he could pull it off, probably infusing it with the detail and heart the previous movies had in abundance. He spoke before the film that he wanted to make a work that tackled the subject of intolerance, to fight “against anyone who uses violence to prove his ideas”. Using three weeks of preparation before filming began, with minimal computer effects—he wanted a “going back in time” realism, so extras were hired and sets were built—he definitely did the job while also shedding light on a period of history that hasn’t really been done in Hollywood.

Debuting at Cannes, this screening was the North American premiere. The theatre was full of festival attendees and rows of Blackberry, Bell, and AMC sponsorship employees. But once the lights dimmed and the movie began, all that went away and Amenábar encompassed us in the city of Alexandria. A woman, the daughter of the head of the glorious library holding mankind’s history, Hypatia, played nicely by Rachel Weisz, is the voice and teacher for a new generation of Egyptians. It is a mixed group of those still believing in the Gods, (pagans), and the new Christian contingent, being persecuted while also persecuting as well. Hypatia looks past all that, refusing to align herself with a religion, instead utilizing science itself as her philosophy’s backbone. Teaching and comprehending the world as heliocentric, attempting to grasp at the idea of gravity many, many years before its discovery to allow for a geocentric model, it all derails once bigotry prevails. The agora becomes a scene of Christians throwing fruit at the statues of the Gods, an offense that the pagans must meet with retribution. It all turns into a fight that exposes the infinite number of Christians living in the city. All those who hid their beliefs expose themselves for the battle, eventually driving the pagans back into the library to await word from the prefect on what’s to be done for a truce.

The fight is epic in scope and execution—a mass of humanity fighting friends in the streets. Amenábar has no fear in showing the brutality and intimacy of the war. We see overhead shots of people running around like ants, but also close-up views of the men engaging with each other, taking it as personally as possible. When a man’s slave must reconcile his duty to his master and that to his God, the pain and conflict is etched on his face. Screaming, “I’m a Christian!” and then going over to beat the man he served, epitomizes the event completely. You could argue that the fighting scenes overshadow the rest in effectiveness and you would be right. The scenes of government, school, and scientific research do become second fiddle to the hostility brewing underneath the surface, as they are somewhat generic and not too original as far as historical biographies go. They are a necessity, though, to give the audience a jumping off point as to why both factions feel the need to disagree and prove their superiority. Just wait for the second half—after a clumsy transitional time jump—where most pagans have become Christians themselves in order to survive in the new rebuilt Alexandria. It now becomes a war between them and the Jews, fighting for equality in a government ruled by one of Hypatia’s former students, Oscar Isaac’s Orestes, a newly made Christian, yet educated by a woman … blasphemy indeed.

All the fighting does, however, is cause death and destruction, setting mankind back centuries in progress and education. We can’t know for sure if Hypatia was on the verge of such scientific theories that far back, but the point definitely comes across. Amenábar made a statement before the screening that if the Alexandria library had not been destroyed, we might have landed on Mars already. The interesting thought of those words is that they might not be as bold as you’d initially think. So much knowledge was lost in this bickering feud without reason besides needing some form of victory in a pissing contest. It is something to consider especially when you look at history after that point and the countless deaths of visionaries and potentially brilliant minds due to zealotry, genocide, and just plain blind aggression or inferiority complexes. I’m sure the fact that the film shows three religions at war, none of which are Muslim, isn’t lost on the filmmakers and serves as some sort of comment towards political tensions today, but you have to read into the tale to get to that point; I think it works as a historical epic alone without the need of social commentary of the present.

But Agora isn’t only about the fighting in a general sense, it really hones in on some of the players, especially the original classmates in Hypatia’s lessons. You have Orestes, a reformed Christian to advance his political stature; Synesius, (played by Rupert Evans), a young man who admitted his religion but kept allegiance to his teacher and class that would later become a bishop; and Davus, an ex-slave of Hypatia’s family that slowly sees his world falling apart, deciding to leave the woman he has fallen for—an impossible love by being her slave, but also because she herself had just one love, her work—to join a military faction of the Christians, inflicting order and violence on those against them. All the acting is very good, but only Max Minghella’s Davus stands out to warrant specific mention. He has the largest evolution of the bunch and wears his emotions openly on his sleeve. The result of his history with Weisz’s character leads to an admittedly obvious climax, but those shortcomings in the human aspect of the story shouldn’t detract from the success of the historical moments. As a piece of history and as entertaining wartime cinema, I think Agora earns the right to be seen.

Agora 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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