Sunday, July 25, 2010

Movie Review- Agora

I was surprised Saturday to learn via the web that Agora was showing in a small art-house cinema near my home. I was surprised because it has had such an underpublicized release as to go completely unnoticed in the USA unless you are looking for it. That aside let me assure you that if you have an interest in Roman history, philosophy, or the struggles of religious factions in early Christianity you will almost certainly enjoy this film. That is, if you can approach it without a tendentious viewpoint.

It has received significant criticism for perceived defamation of Christianity (more specifically of the Catholic Church), and the Religious Anti-Defamation Observatory denounced the film; but the distribution company had insisted before its release on screening it at the Vatican, which offered no objections and actually assisted with some of the depictions. There is one scene in which the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, reads from the Bible about the proper place of women, and if you are not familiar with the Bible you may think it's a harsh fiction, but in fact the Vatican helped to choose the version of this reading used in the film. If not for anti-Christian sentiment, the film may be criticized for a certain dislike of hierarchy in general, as Christians attack Jews, Jews attack Christians, Christians attack Pagans, Pagans attack Christians, and the Roman soldiers sent to keep the peace look ready to attack anyone necessary. Everyone is a bad person at some point; Hypatia the philosopher, though the moral compass of the piece, snaps at her slave, and everybody is loaded with some fatal flaw, be it ambition, lust, or zealotry.

The most surprising facet is the director's tendency to use shots of the earth from space, to underscore both the place of the planet (and consequently humanity and its petty squabbles and concerns), as well as scientific inquiry. It is Hypatia's search for the place of Earth in the order of the universe that provides the through-line of the film. So, you know, nothing too weighty.

Despite what could come across as rather prodigious scientific theory, it is presented in such a way by the script that it is immediately accessible to even the most sophmoric mind, aided by a superlative performance from Rachel Weisz; who is neither too gritty to be believable as a starry-eyed thinker absorbed with her questions, nor so introspective as to be divorced from the terrible events which surround her and bookend the movie's narrative.

Though often approaching sentimentality, the film swings away from it at the last moment to re-focus on the human and the real. Historical accuracy is high, and I spent a good part of the evening following my viewing by researching the characters and events depicted.

I give this movie two enthusiastic thumbs up for entertainment, accuracy, and story. Visually magnificent, nuanced, and with an ambitious scope the film delivers all that it promises, and invites the viewer to be part of a challenging discourse that stretches from ancient Egypt to the ideological clashes of our own time.

2 comments:

  1. Exellent - I've got this in my to-watch list and am really excited to watch it now I've read your wonderful review! It's now leapt to the top of the list ;)

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  2. I'm glad you found the review helpful, you'll have to let me know how you like the film!

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