Wednesday, June 02, 2010

An Imperfect Circle.

Jose here. Is it me or has the release of Agora gone quite unnoticed in the United States?

Not that I'm saying everyone should leave whatever they're doing and go see it (I thought it was pretty mediocre actually as you can read in my review) but I find it surprising that so little has been mentioned about a movie that could generate controversy.

Not only does it feature a woman as lead, but the woman in case (Hypatia of Alexandria played effectively by Rachel Weisz) was also, allegedly, quite ahead of her times and had no need of a man in her life. Think of her as a character of Sex and the Old City.

But the most divisive point in the movie might be Amenábar's portrayal of early Christians as the wreckers of reason. If you think Almodóvar has pent up Christian anger, wait 'til you see the Gibsonian way with which Amenábar jumps against preachers of the gospels.

There's a great article out there by Tim O'Neill that wonders how much Amenábar bent history at his will to push his own agenda. It's highly recommended, if only because of the amount of research the author put into it.

Yet despite all the silliness and shortsightedness of Agora I couldn't help but be mystified and intrigued by the way Amenábar could've done a great film based only on the nature of his visuals.
Agora is after all based on a geometric principle. His allegations of Hypatia's premonition of Kepler's laws might be a little far fetched but his ideas of the "evolution" of the circle as a mystic figure are remarkable.

The first half of the film glorifies the circle and establishes it's a symbol of perfection (you can even see its love of it in the poster)

But as the plot advances, the characters' idea of the circle begin to shift towards the possibility of its imperfection, which gives us the ellipse.

Then we get views of buildings and elements we'd seen before with a slight change in perspective (the circle becoming an ellipse) and while the obvious plot sinks into a biased melodramatic condemnation of fundamentalism the things we're seeing suggest something altogether more significant.

Besides the implications of Kepler's contribution to science what can we learn about the effect of the circle in cinematic storytelling?
Wasn't the elliptical nature of cinema after all a major contribution to narrative aesthetics and the way humanity could perceive the world around them?

Perhaps if Amenábar had been a little less worried about pre-postfeminism and religious hooligans he might've realized he had the power to create a complete film course.

What's your take on Agora? have you seen it yet?


Nick Duval said...

Despite it being "mediocre," as you called it, it sounds interesting and I want to see it. That's an interesting visual idea with the circle changing.

The Z said...

I just have to wait for it to come around the Twin Cities. Or the DVD release...

Jorge Rodrigues said...

Yes I've seen it last year because it premiered here in Portugal in the fall.

It's so ravishing that I am able to forgive its many, many flaws. Rachel Weisz is, as you said, effective as Hypathia but since she is not the "lead" of the movie per se, her performance does not matter that much.

Despite all the controversy and its depiction of the early Christians, the visuals really stuck with me. Those scenes in the Library were astonishing.

The film is too long and the script is not-at-all brilliant and he seems to have lost himself by the middle of the movie.

"Perhaps if Amenabar had been a little less worried about pre-postfeminism and religious hooligans he might've realized he had the power to create a complete film course." - I couldn't have put it better myself.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Oh Jose, must you continue to lambast Agora? You’re picking on the unpopular kid at school. For shame.

I did see it again last week and I do still love it. Sure, the Christians are loathsome at times, but Gibsonian – Lord no…at least I don’t think so. I’m still willing to disregard some of the in-your-face moments for the poignant scenes he injects (admittedly few). I end up seeing it as less as an attack on Christianity and more of a – perhaps biased – view of power/religion and what it precipitates. But then, I wonder if I’m just so wonder over the luminosity of Rachel Weisz in the same way that Amenábar is (his camera really does love her).

The lone issue I have with the movie, which is as much against Amenábar as the public, is that I don’t think it’s as Avant-garde as everyone (and I think Amenábar too) believe it to be. Of course, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Iggy said...

I wouldn't call it mediocre, either. Is it flawed? Yes, it is. But I found it was a really compelling story. Though sometimes the production reminds you of all those old "Roman movies" it services a very different story. I must confess I have no idea about Hypathia, her story or the scientific part shown in the movie, but I was hooked by it and at the same time I didn't feel it had been dumbed down for people like me.

As for the Christians being the bad guys, it's clearly stated in the movie that it's a specific section more interested in power than in religion. Personally, I'm thankful for that approach. It would've been so easy to portray muslims as the bad guys, I think it's brave to show that there was a time and place where some Christians factions were as fundamentalists as some islamist nowadays. Because in the end that's the point of the movie for me, that religious fundamentalism is destructive no matter where it comes from.

All in all, I agree with Jorge, it's so ravishing, the story so interesting, the love the camera feels for Weisz, as Andrew said, that I can forgive Max Minghella or its desire to tell too much (they had to cut 20' before releasing it, right?). I'd say the best way to enjoy it, it's as an above the average level popcorn movie. One of those that make you feel satisfied when you leave the theatre.


wasn't Gattaca also obsessed with visual circles? or am i remembering it wrong?

Jose said...

Andrew: I'm not picking on it! Haha in fact I'm expressing that I liked something about it A LOT.
I haven't been able to stop thinking how good it would've been if Amenábar has been less violence obsessed.

Iggy: you don't need to be a historian to know that the rise of Christianity was won by blood.
My problem was that the director disregarded anything else about the era and put the blame for everything on the violent Christians (again like Mel did with the Jews).
The allegation that they destroyed every bit of knowledge in the ancient world isn't historically accurate at all and if you ask me it actually smells of resentment not objective film making.

Nat: haven't seen Gattaca in years! Interesting though...

adri said...

Re Gattaca - I do remember something about them choosing the Marin County center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for one of the futuristic settings, because it was all curvy and non-boxy.

I can't wait to see Agora. I don't care if it's not perfect, a film about ideas with a great heroine (I always liked what I read about Hypatia in Plato) is just what I like. And after watching a few seasons of The Tudors, I think I'm accustomed to seeing the vile effects of organized religion and how quickly it's used to kill some other part of the population.

MIGUELÓN said...

Too much longer, but I think it's a great film, Rachel is great, music, cinematography, visual effects, etc... too.
The supporting actors are, for me, the worst in he film

Iggy said...


I think you're right, that's why I think he had too much material going on to put on one film, and one film that is focused on the story of Hypathia, not on the Christians. Disregarding any other factors for the decline of that era is probably just a choice, because he wanted to focus on the science vs religion thing, exemplified in Hypathia. I don't think it was a movie about the decline of that era and culture, but about something specific of that era.

It's true some of the Christians are portrayed in a simplistic way, they seem to be pure evil for the sake of it, but I thought it fitted the way extremists think, following the leader, repeating what they're told and not questioning anything (there are still people like that nowadays). I think Amenábar was well aware of it so to counterbalance this, he included other "good Christians", or he was pressed to do so, I don't know. As far as accuracy is concerned, ****spoiler****
even the ending isn't accurate either (ha, I can't spoil it properly). But the truth is that I've never seen a historical drama that's accurate to the historical facts.

I'm glad you mention the resentment of Christianism you see in it. I thought about it too when I saw the movie. In fact you can rethink his previous movies (except for Tesis , probably) as dealing with some Christian issues in one way or another.
Mar adentro (The Sea Inside ): euthanasia
The Others : strict religiousness connected (leading to?) madness.
Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes ): twisted heaven as a result of replacing God?. Fate? But to me this is his worst movie, so I'm not sure I got it right.

I think there's an interesting increasing presence of religious issues in his movies, from its complete absence in Tesis to main focus in Agora. Maybe he received a "Bad education" :).

But back to Agora , for me I really admire the man (still in his 30s) who can make every movie in a single different genre. A guy who can move comfortably in a big lavish production and deal with the external pressures to include a love story, for instance and still stick to his ideas. And having as a result a very good movie.

No Bad Movies said...

I saw it here in Seattle at the SIIF and I thought it was OK. Great production values and Rachel does a commendable job in her part but I found it a tad boring and I like slow moving " art " movies. Not the worst thing you'll see but def not the best or anywhere near it. Art direction and costumes are a plus.