Friday, July 23, 2010
Movie review: Agora
Stone-throwing thugs for Christ, drunk on destruction, take down the great library at Alexandria. (And you are there.)
Set in Roman-administered Alexandria, Egypt circa 400 A.D., this is a thought-provoking, visually sumptuous fictionalized account of a time of transition, when a clash of religious beliefs and changing world views combined to usher in a new era of Christian dominance in an empire formerly supportive of polytheistic beliefs.
Be forewarned: the Christians depicted in this screen story bear no resemblance whatsoever to the gentle, wise, loving souls featured in golden age Hollywood biblical epics such as Spartacus or The Robe; rather, this latter-day rabble come across as stone-throwing thugs for Christ, drunk on destruction and fueled by righteous zeal. As counseled by the firebrand Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) and led by Cyril (Sami Samir), they are seen to be a vandalizing mob intent on wiping out all traces of "less enlightened" (i.e., non-Christian) cultures.
Thus, the destruction and burning of the great library at Alexandria.
The tragic hero of this tale, refreshingly, is an atheistic female philosopher with an abiding interest in cosmology: the aforementioned Hypatia. She is also a teacher with a devoted (all male) cadre of students; her acolytes include both free men and slaves.
Hot for teacher is Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia's personal servant, who we see early on assisting her at the lectern. In between episodes of toweling her nude body, Davus evinces an immoderate grasp of celestial mechanics: He actually constructs a mechanical orrery based on Ptolemaic concepts which placed the Earth at the center of the cosmos. Before he has much of a chance to bask in the glow of his mistress' approval, however, Davus falls under the influence of the proselytizing Ammonius. Quick as you can say "screw that whole science thing," Davus is learning to pray, taking cues from the his radical Christian brethren.
Long-held tensions between pagans and Christians erupt in the Serapeum, where pagan statues are being desecrated by Christian mobs. The pagans -- understandably outraged -- fall upon the Christians with clubs and swords. Unfortunately for them, they've underestimated the numerical superiority of their rivals and soon revert to the defensive, barricading themselves within the edifice.
There's quite a bit of poetic license taken throughout, particularly given the fact that the great library is shown to be housed within the Serapeum itself; when the Christians overrun the place, Hypatia and her peers make a last-minute attempt to salvage some of the scrolls before running away, Monty Python-like.
Throughout this and the ten-years-later episode which follows, director Amenábar provides sweeping orbital views of the planet, zooming slowly down to ground level to provide us with a grand omniscient view of these tumultuous events, as ant-like combatants slaughter each other for religion's sake.
Shortly before her destruction at the hands of the now state-supported Christian ideologues, Hypatia experiences an intellectual revelation stemming from her study of -- remarkably -- geometry. The solution to the riddle of the planets comes in the form of an ellipse.
Agora opens today (Friday) at the Angelika Dallas.
FAMILIAR BATTLE CRY: "God is with us!"
EDITORIAL DISTINCTION: "Leave the lesser works!" - pagan leader Theon (Michael Lonsdale), scrambling to save the library's scrolls
"Which are the lesser works?" - Davus
STRICT CONSTRUCTIONIST VIEW: "I am as Christian as you are!" - Prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac), on the point of being stoned