Agora – An Historical Picture without Much to Offer Besides a Pretty Leading Lady

Spanish-Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) takes a less than impressive turn with the historical drama, Agora staring Rachel Weisz as an atheist philosopher in 391AD.

Set in Roman Egypt, Agora (according to its own description) is about an inquisitive slave who turns to the new religion of Christianity while longing for freedom and falling in love with his master’s daughter, the famous female professor Hypatia of Alexandria. But after seeing the premier at Cannes, I wonder who wrote that account and if they saw the film in its entirety, since the movie only peripherally covers these plot points and instead spends a whole lot of time superficially dabbing at other topics.

Although Agora attempts to cover a lot of ground, the film doesn’t satisfactorily address any of the plot lines. Legendary philosopher Hypatia, (Rachel Weisz) we are told, is seeking the secret to the Earth’s true orbit, but few scenes demonstrate this, and those that do repeat the same question again and again. The constant religious rioting among the people of fourth century Alexandria is much talked about, but is presented as repetitive base retaliations with no explanation other than “my religion is better than yours”. And a pair of flatulent attempts to gain Hypatia’s romantic attention falls flat, as the adoration resembles superficial school-boyish admiration, lacking any emotional depth. Even Hypatia’s rebuke of the advances of one of her suitor’s is meant to enlighten the audience to her character, but instead comes across as a mean-spirited gesture, and a poor attempt at making a profound statement about the nature of a woman’s place in Roman times.

Additionally, the writing is a bit sporadic. There are some wonderfully dynamic moments of personal detail such as the ritual of the master’s bath, but then in the middle of the film the story suddenly skips years forward with no explanation, omitting what one can only be imagined as important information on how everyone has elevated to opposing positions of power. Even more confusing is how Hypatia has come to reside in the home of the would-be lover she formerly rejected. This lack of explanation justifies the taunts of “whore” aimed at Hypatia and her role in this unexamined relationship.

The production value is also lacking. There are plenty of sweeping computer generated overviews of ancient Alexandria, as well as some overused “God’s eye” views that zoom in from outer space, but coupled with the obvious set pieces used for the interior scenes, the overall effect is that of a movie of the week or miniseries, not a mega million dollar epic. The costumes, on the other hand, are exceptional, but the hair design on most of the men distracts from this quality. Synesius (Rupert Evans) goes from a bowl hair cut in his youth to what can only be described as a Christ-like surfer dude look in later years.

The only other notable qualities to Agora are the performances of the exceptional cast, particularly of the two leads. Rachel Weisz gives an as-usual fine performance, but the role is not fully fleshed out to allow any truly memorable moments that would make this a stand out performance in an already impressive resume. It is Max Minghella, however, as the slave Davus, who really shines. Although his role suffers from the same underwriting as the others, Minghella brings a powerful presence to the screen that imparts volumes to his many silent moments as he observes the actions and events unraveling around him.

Because of Minghella, Davus is the only character you can really get a sense about and care for. And this is the film’s greatest fault – we just don’t care enough. So what if Hypatia was an independent woman in a time when such things were unheard of? It’s difficult to give a damn when she is shown living in luxury experiencing academic fulfillment while the world outside is tearing itself apart. Hypatia is virtually a Marie-Antoinette, a spoiled aristocrat of her time enjoying her privileges while the masses fight. The same can be said of the subordinate characters, all of whom are given so little screen time that it’s impossible to dislike anyone strongly enough to justify the title of Antagonist. Add to that the fact that the film lacks a solid protagonist, Agora is merely a reasonably good film with an under utilized cast with very little to do.

“A Better Life”: A Better Summer Film if You Like Good Stories

 

A father and son go on a journey in “A Better Life”

“A Better Life” tells the tale of an illegal immigrant father and his American born teenage son. The father is a sincere and honest man who works exhausting hours as a landscaper so his fourteen year old can live a better life than what would have been available to him back in Mexico. Their relationship is a strained one, as the boy is at an age of natural rebellion and is embarrassed by his father’s profession. But the father quietly endures, not minding the subtle indignations as long as his son stays out of trouble and gets an education. He even buys the truck from his retiring employer so he can carry on his work without standing on the corner waiting to be selected as a day laborer. Unfortunately, the truck is stolen, and the father and son go on a near impossible journey to get it back. Through the course of their search together the son gains a better understanding of his dad and learns what it means to be a father, and an American.  

The father sees a beautiful view just before seeing something shocking.

The story of “A Better Life” is a simple one, but don’t let that put you off. As this well executed tale will prove, simple is sweet. The very first thing you notice about “A Better Life” is the stillness and quite beauty of the cinematography and acting. Unlike other summer releases, this one is not loaded down with a bunch of fancy camera tricks or any kind of special effects other than those provided by the subtle and heartfelt performances so lovingly caught on film. And I do mean film, for this production used an old fashioned camera, providing a warm and intimate feel one can only get when shooting with actual film stock. The choice seems poignantly fitting. An old fashioned feel for an old fashioned film that offers something you rarely get from a Hollywood product anymore; a well-constructed story that entertains and satisfies. This rare achievement is particularly impressive considering that Chris Weitz’s first two films as a solo director include the fantasy extravaganza  “The Golden Compass” and the second installment of the Twilight films, “New Moon” (Weitz’s other directing credits are shared with his brother, Paul). That’s a huge swing of the pendulum; one few would expect from someone use to hundred million dollar budgets. Of course the budgets may have been very large, but the decisions were not always his to make. With a smaller budget the director gets to make more of the decisions, and in this case it appears to have paid off. One of the decisions was to shoot on real locations in Los Angeles with a bilingual cast and crew, even though Weitz himself could not speak Spanish before shooting began. It was a choice he made in order to pay honor to the cohesive intent of the film, a conscious nod to the coming together of different worlds. This thematic homage really shows through, lending the film an added depth of authenticity in every single frame.  

Although seemingly impossible, the father must try to find his stolen truck.

I will not spoil the experience of this film by giving away its ending, or even mentioning one of the most thrilling moments of the film that prompted the audience I watched it with to explode in to applause. I will tell you that the film has similarities to the classic film “The Bicycle Thieves”, which is not surprising since Weitz has mentioned watching a lot of Italian neo-realism and De Sica before beginning production. That being said there is no neat, happy ending. The conclusion is a complicated and realistic one that leaves room for possibilities. But I think intelligent audiences will appreciate the opportunity to think for themselves. Better yet, intelligent audiences will appreciate a good film without a bunch of fancy frills and post-production sweetening. Without a doubt, “A Better Life” is the best bang for the buck so far this summer. With filmmaking this clean and simple, how can you go wrong?  

October 2015 update: By the way, I predicted that the lead actor, Demian Bichir would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance.  And even thought this was a small film that almost no one saw, he was.  Unfortunately, it was the same year a s “The Artist” and Bichir lost the Best Actor statuette to Jean Dujardin.  Hopefully, we will see more of Bichir on the big screen soon.