Our reader / contributor in Cannes hasn't had much time for post-screening e-mails but she is quite fond of Agora, from director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside). That's rather a surprise since a lot of reports we've been reading have been decidedly less enthusiastic. But you know cinema: it divides whether or not it conquers.
Here she is...
Agora is unapologetically provocative. The Vatican has been wasting its time worrying about Angels and Demons with Amenábar's epic about the religious strife that destroyed Alexandria waiting in the wings. Rachel Weisz, reminding us that her Oscar win was no fluke, is dynamic as Hypatia, the philosopher and astronomer known for her outspoken questioning of God. She has a high-minded nature and has sworn off men and worldly pursuits completely. The first half of the movie follows the expulsion of the pagans from Alexandria and the Christian led destruction of the city's famed library. Many Alexandrians convert to Christianity in the wake of the seige, including Hypatia's former slave Davus (Max Minghella) and confidante Orestes (Oscar Isaac). Hypatia nonetheless remains steadfast in her beliefs, devoting her time to pursuing possible explanations for the heliocentric model. The movie focuses on the growing power of the Christians, as they turn their sights on the Jews and eventually the city's entire political organization. Agora outright accuses the film's Christian leaders of flagrantly manipulating the biblical text and indulging in the worst types of persecution (are there good types?). This is the most forthright challenge to the religion that I have personally seen committed to film.I know several readers are hoping that we see Rachel Weisz on Oscar's red carpet again. The lack of consensus enthusiasm at Cannes doesn't always mean something in the larger marketplace (and thus the Oscars) but it can. Rosengje thinks that if it surmounts the obvious obstacle -- will anyone see it? will critics care to convince them to? -- it would find Oscar favor.
Max Minghella starts out somewhat weak but grows increasingly impressive as he develops from a slave in love with Hypatia to a religious follower trying to mute his own unease with the tactics being used around him. I was most invested in the relationship between Orestes and Hypatia, and the former's clear respect and admiration for the latter. Watching Orestes negotiate the turning of public opinion against Hypatia gives the movie its most challenging emotional edge. Agora has some trouble connecting the drama of the personal stories with its larger tale of a pivotal moment in civilization, but its audacity, technical clarity, and relatability ultimately make it worthy of the effort.
<-- Abbie Cornish and Jane Campion at the Bright Star premiere
I also had to ask her opinion on Jane Campion's Bright Star which is about the short passionate romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It's my most eagerly awaited picture from the festival on account of my deep love for Campion's The Piano (1993).
Rosengje is less enthusiastic then the consensus thus far.
I enjoyed and admired Jane Campion' competition entry Bright Star but could not fight the feeling that the movie frequently functions as a standard period romance. Abbie Cornish's direct manner and eventual tenderness toward her beloved are captivating. It is a testament to her performance that the poignancy of the relationship is actually more potent in Keats' absence. I felt the leads were lacking in chemistry, but the depth of Fanny's feeling as the film progresses is palpable and carries the film's last act as Keats journeys to Italy to treat his tuberculosis.This is the same sequence that Roger Ebert referred to in his recent Cannes article, so I'm guessing it's a true standout and one that they'll eventually plaster on beautiful Oscar FYC ads... not that that is all that important at the moment. The real importance is that Jane Campion has finally made another picture. Rosengje wanted Campion's comeback movie to be a bit more "narratively audacious" but thinks it could be an arthouse hit.
I found Ben Whishaw to be Bright Star's biggest weakness. The actor effectively portrays the man's sensitivity and his poetic nature, but overall he seems too weak to warrant the affection of the headstrong Fanny. Paul Schneider, in the supporting role of Mr. Brown, gives the movie's most energetic and vital performance amidst the romantic and intellectual angst. He constantly challenges Fanny's motives while demonstrating a true devotion to Keats.
As expected, the technical credits are perfection, with costumes and cinematography standing out. Fanny starts Bright Star obsessed with design, and her frilled and pleated ensembles reveal more about her personality in the opening scenes than her initial interactions with Keats. Campion particularly captures the beauty of the couple's surroundings in a way that is more effective than the resulting poetry. One sequence involving butterflies left me breathless.
Bob Berney, formerly of Picturehouse, has made a career of successfully drawing audiences to arthouse fare, and the young leads and romance should be accessible and enjoyable to a fairly broad audience.Agora is currently expected on American screens on December 18th. Bright Star arrives on September 18th.