Monday, September 17, 2012

Shadows and Dust

"Soon you'll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most - and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial." ~ The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book V.

If there is one single theme to Alejandro Amenabar's Agora it's that religion doesn't matter. Not that it's violent or regressive or makes you stupid - though it's certainly all those things - but that the thousands of years of fretting over who has the better pantheon counts for exactly nothing.

He illustrates this point through the character of Hypatia - a Roman woman, nominally pagan but utterly indifferent to the whole fiasco. She's much more concerned with astronomy and philosophy and how gravity works. As 4th Century Alexandria goes balls-out crazy all around her, she continues to calmly track the orbits of the "five wanderers," the known planets of the time, determined to learn how they move regardless of why.

"Look! Stuff falls! What's up with that!?"

 This is a damned good film. Most that go for these Big Ideas have lackluster production. The ones that really nail the production - which this film does, transporting you back to classical Alexandria - have lackluster plots more to the tune of Gladiator or 300.

Agora doesn't just have Big Ideas and gorgeous production, it carries things off with a compelling and character driven drama. Even halfway through the film, where events jump several years into the future, the narrative flow doesn't suffer. In fact, the sudden shift reinforces the theme of religious indifference - while the Christians have become the big player, so much so that former pagans have converted for political gain, Hypatia is still giddily pursuing her research into how the universe functions. Her joy of discovery is infectious and viewing these events well after the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, we the audience are very much aware of the significance of her findings.

Which Amenabar contrasts with the rising tide of Christians and their ruthless, power-seeking bishop. While no religion is ever singled out - all being portrayed as brutal and vindictive - the long aerial tracking shots and frequent views from orbit make them all look so small and inconsequential.

Because they are. As I said, the theme is crystal clear that these constant battles over theology count for nothing in the vast emptiness of space. Hypatia tries to understand that emptiness, refuses to care about the petty tribal feuds around her and, well, you can kinda guess what happens...

Spoiler: Everybody dies.

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