Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I usually don't care for period pieces. I often get caught up with making sure the costume and look of the environments are historically accurate, which is really not that important. What is truly important with the costume and set design are their artistic qualities; not whether the costumes are accurate to the time period. Hell, 99 times out of 100 the language isn't even accurate to the time period. But, certain things done in Agora make these details truly unimportant.

The main thing the film does are the shots of Earth from space. These give the film an anthro-pological feel, as if the filmmakers are arguing that the way the characters behave in the movie reflects the true nature of our species--the violent hatred between differing groups, the heated debates about whose God is true and just, the inability to put aside differences and coexist. This anthropology removes the film from its singular place in ancient Alexandria and makes it transferable to any culture, at any epoch in history.

Twice during the film, and again at the very end, written text appears on the screen describing the lives of certain characters as time within the film jumps forward a number of years. This is done each time during a shot from high up in the sky, if not outer space. This gives the viewer a sort-of "God's-eye-view" of Alexandria as time goes by, as if God or some celestial being is telling us what is taking place. These bits of text add to the anthropology of the film, as if the entire film were a chapter in a textbook, and God himself is reading it to us.

Aside from allowing the viewer to put aside the complaints of historical accuracies, the anthro-pology of the film is quite startling and frankly depressing. Several characters in the film articulate an mathematical principle (several math and science principles are used as metaphors for human interaction) indicating how we humans have more in common than we do different. Disappointingly, these articulations fall on deaf ears, as the Christians and Romans continue their hatred and waring throughout the film.

The first character to proffer this metaphor is Hypatia, a scientist and philosopher played exquisitely by Rachel Weisz. Ironically, in a film centered around religion so much, it is an admitted atheist philosopher who comes to embody what is often called the "face of God" character. She attempts to act as the arbiter between the feuding religions, be the level-headed diplomat for both sides, and represent hope with her beautiful smile as she gazes at the stars and works out thought experiments in her study. How is she rewarded for attempting this noble feat? She is accused of witchcraft and godlessness, and sentenced to be stoned to death.

She is brought to a local church and stripped naked, so that "God can behold [her] in all [her] filth," according to a member of her execution squad. While the death squad is gathering stones, she is murdered by Davus, her former slave and former lover, a leader of the Christian uprising. After the murder, the camera once again ascends to the heavens as text reports what is to happen to Hypatia's body in gruesome detail, and what is to happen to Alexandria as a whole, in one of the most mesmerizing and devastating film climaxes I've seen in quite a while.

Agora stands as a truly depressing film, reminds us that is not love that conquers all. Nor diplomacy. Nor reason. Nor beauty. It is the fervent defending of one's beliefs that drive the action in the entire film, from the opening religious riot, jaw-dropping because of its surprising violence and chaos, to the defiling of the famous Library at Alexandria by the revolutionary Christians, to the persecution of a brilliant scientist because of her lack of religion.

I am first reminded of Shakespeare's infamous quote from As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." I am then reminded of John Doe's meditation from Se7en: "What sick, ridiculous puppets we are, and what gross little stage we dance on. What fun we have dancing and fucking, not a care in the world, not knowing that we are nothing. We are not what was intended." These ideas ring even more truly after watching Agora.

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