DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Agora

Friday 11 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Agora

Agora (2009) dir. Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Michael Lonsdale, Ashraf Barhom and Sammy Samir


Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

“Agora” approaches the subject of religion in a historical context with lots of sizzle, but ultimately fails to serve up the steak. This is truly unfortunate since a feature film rendering of the tragic demise of the famed Alexandria Museum and Library has had a long enough wait for big-screen treatment. In the hands of the reasonably talented, but rather humourless and precious Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others”), this epic-scaled tale of 4th Century clashes between pagans, Christians and Jews during the last days of the Roman Empire in Egypt is not without interest (particularly in the first forty minutes or so), but it eventually loses its footing and drags leadenly to an inevitable conclusion. One of the biggest problems is the epic-scale itself, or rather, lack thereof as Amenabar seeks to rise above the usual sex and sin antics of such works in order to create a sense of intimacy and do so with taste and intelligence. While these are surely most lofty and purportedly worthwhile goals, that doesn’t stop them from being dull.

The central problem with the film might actually be the decision to focus on the story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), the brilliant mathematician and teacher of philosophy who preserved her chastity in order to solely devote herself to the pursuit of knowledge. While it might seem unfair to criticize the film for this choice, I will gladly stand so accused since it’s my firm belief that a virgin, no matter how passionately brainy she is, can’t really be interesting enough to sustain one’s interest in a picture unless: (a) she is to be part of a Hammer Horror-styled demonic sacrifice ritual (nude, of course) or (b) there’s a whole lot of orgies going on around her. Well, we’re given a nude execution, but it’s hardly the stuff of Hammer Horror and sadly, the movie is utterly bereft of orgies.

What the movie really needed was a bit of the old razzle-dazzle in the Cecil B. De Mille style. It’s not that there wasn’t room for this. We have Hypatia teaching philosophy to a whole mess o’ hunky young studs. Two of the firm-buttock-equipped lads, the dreamy slave-boy Davus (Max Minghella) and buff piss and vinegar nobleman Orestes (Oscar Isaac) pine longingly for the opportunity to remove her clothing as ravenously as she bares her knowledge in all things philosophical and mathematical. For his declarations of love, all Orestes receives is a cloth soiled with Hypatia’s menstrual blood (which she hurls at him as proof that sex is dirty and painful and not worth her time). Dewy and doe-eyed Davus is praised by Hypatia for his intelligence whilst he moons with silent, unrequited passion, yet is chastised by her for buggering something up – hence, revealing her deep-seeded prejudice towards slaves. With this triangle a-brewing, Hypatia’s Daddy Theon (Michael Lonsdale) finds himself torn between the needs of the old guard pagans and the rabidly devout Christians who are led by the charismatic, fire-walking John the Baptist-inspired zealot monk Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) who preaches non-violence whilst being only too happy to commit it when he needs to further preach the Word of God. Amidst all the heavy breathing and mathematics lessons, conflict between the pagans and Christians brews with plenty of toil, trouble, boil and bubble including such delights as the public burning of a pagan and a grisly attempt to slice and dice as many Christians as possible. All of the abovementioned builds with a reasonable interest-level to the frenzy that is none other than the burning of the contents of the Alexandria library.

Up to this point, the picture is relatively watchable: fine, classical cinematography, excellent costume design, magnificent art direction (both real standing sets under the sunny Maltese locations and CGI) and some very fine performances from all the male leads. Alas, we’re only about 45 minutes into the proceedings and there’s still about 80 minutes to go. What we’re left with are more mathematics and astronomy lessons from Hypatia, much gnashing and ruminating amongst political and religious leaders, a heavy-handed mini-holocaust-and-pogrom of the Alexandrian Jews, even more unrequited panting and, lest we forget that Hypatia is a lassie with some mighty fine book larnin’ emblazoned on that noggin of hers, we’re delivered a detailed demonstration and explanation of ellipses. Eventually, Hypatia is faced with the threat of execution and a nude public parading (though not necessarily in that order) and we’re treated one of the most ridiculous (though not in a fun De Mille way) death scenes committed to celluloid.

Since the movie is committed to spinning a yarn about this otherwise fascinating period of religious history through the personage of virginal Hypatia, what really drags this movie down is Rachel Weisz as Hypatia. The humourless Amenabar wrote the role with Weisz in mind, suggesting there might be more wrong with him than his lack of a funny-bone and his aversion to trashing up material that so desperately needs a foul, libidinous touch. Why this intolerable Weisz woman continues to work is beyond me. The camera simply does not love her. Her throaty, one-note whisper and serious, pinched look add up to one detestable actress who might well be the Jodie Foster of her generation. (And whilst Miss Foster might be pinched and humourless, she can actually act.)

“Agora” has great production value, but it’s a pretty dull slog. One must really need to get remedial mathematics tutelage to sit all the way through it – if at all. With a different leading lady, some discretionary artistic licence on Hypatia’s virginity and an orgy scene or three, “Agora” might have truly been worth seeing. For now, anyone needing a cinematic fix on the subject of the 4th Century religious conflicts will have to make do with this snail-paced, meandering, sexless ode to the beauty that is most certainly not Rachel Weisz. That said, Weisz appears to have lovely feet and Amenabar lavishes some not undeserved attention upon them, so that the picture might find an interested party or two amongst foot fetishists. The rest of us, however, need not apply.

“Agora” is playing at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and will soon be in theatrical release from E1 Films.


Quin said...

"intolerable Weisz woman continues to work is beyond me."

Sounds like a personal problem which does show your bias. I saw the film and while its not very good, Rachel Weisz is probably the best thing about it and the only thing that not made me walk out of the film. The film is way too long (The original cut is even longer) and the script lacks real substance.

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Connerblu said...

I think that rachel weisz is actually a very good actress, I mean she won an oscar in 2006 for crying out loud. By the way the movie is really good and is from a fantastic director as well.

Shal said...

The movie was one of the best I have seen in years and surprise surprise, that's because it's not your usual hollywood movie with those crass americans and their overpnouncing dialogues.Thank God for directors such as Alejandro Amenabar for saying it like it is.
Oh by the way Mr.Alan Bacchus if you wanted orgies then perhaps you could watch some pornos huh?

Alan Bacchus said...

My colleague Greg Klymkiw wrote the review. I have not seen it myself and so can't vouch for it.