Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Agora, or On Being Oh So Fucking Clever


As anyone who knows me at all knows, I loves me some vigilante cinema. I can't get enough of that violently unpleasant - creepily uncomfortable - righteously destructive one-two-three punch! Vigilante movies (and their cousins, slasher movies, Rambo movies, and everything about Mel Gibson) work by presenting a hero whose flaw is their disengagement with the world; this flaw unleashes a chaotic Nemesis that must first be tentatively confronted via random confrontation, before descending into an orgy of purifying fire through which our protagonist must pull his assailants, safe in the knowledge that only he will emerge unscathed. This is a perfect example of the vital potential of dumb, trashy cinema, with the side-benefit of confronting any reasonable viewer with an ideology so opposed to their own that a visceral dramatization of that ideology becomes doubly exciting for its dissonance with our own values. So: ordeal, catharsis, visceral challenges to audience ideology: good.

I mention this because Agora feels like it should be working in a similar way, but it gets stuck on Phase 1: Mistreatment. It's all penance, no catharsis. I've read favorable comparisons with The Passion of the Christ, which is inevitable, because (a) the movie tells the exact same story for the benefit of people without an investment in the original picture's protagonist; and (b) the movie is all about Christianity, and as such, it's pretty easy to compare it to notable items in the canon of Christian cinema, but there are no chariot races, so this is where we are.

Obviously Agora wants very much to be Saying Something about the modern spiritual climate (without ever saying anything its target audience might disagree with in the slightest, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds like): in the first half, toothless asshole Christians smash up the Library of Alexandria for reasons never really clarified. The movie takes pains to separate the reason/faith debate from Pagan/Monotheist tensions, except when it's convenient to load your argument by conflating the two dichotomies. So we're not really sure why the Christians are smashing the library, other than everyone in this movie is an asshole except for Rachel Weisz, on which more anon. But the first half feels as long as a regular movie, partly because structure is for idiots and Agora is for smarts, but largely because it's a lot of ordeal and a lot of belaboring of the fairly self-evident point that "it is not good to destroy human knowledge."

After the initial assault on the Library, the picture takes a breather for a CG long-shot of Alexandria, dwelling on the city's remaining majesty, the fires of the city's famed lighthouse symbolizing the fire of knowledge that still yes I know this is so obvious as to be trite, but again, these are the tools the movie has given us to work with, so here we are. It's at this point that the movie's true aim becomes clear. It's not interested in being a parable about knowledge or politics and religion or any of the interesting things the story is ostensibly concerned with: it's a self-flagellating celebration of destruction in the guise of a wake, a hairshirt for intellectualism. Agora is so puffed-up and proud of its natural-philosophy chops, it can't even be bothered working out how to have a good narrative. You don't enjoy Agora because there's no catharsis to enjoy: instead you congratulate yourself on agreeing with its endlessly victimized, utterly flawless protagonist, as if those all around you were cheering on the swarthy, foreign-accented Christians and Jews (because it's also pretty racist, so bully for that) and only you were smart enough to feel a kinship with the way the heroine is the most perfect human being in the history of all people.

The second half expands on the movie's theme of "toothless asshole Christians are toothless assholes" with an hour or so of irrelevant back-and-forth between toothless asshole Christians, oily asshole Pagans, and undercharacterized asshole Jews, and then it needs an ending, so they decide to stone Weisz to death, though her only crime is that she spends the movie being utterly perfect and wise and knowledgeable and graceful and selfless, which in a movie is actually a pretty good reason to kill someone, because that is a boring character to have to spend an entire movie with! Also spoiler, one of the guys who has been in love with her all along (pretty much everyone except Rachel Weisz plays someone who has been in love with Rachel Weisz all along) strangles her before she can be stoned, and this plotline takes up far, far too much time.

Agora thinks it's presenting a timely parable about how little time society has for philosophical inquiry or reasoned debate. But in refusing to scrutinize in the slightest its protagonist or her ideals, it forces an interpretation that ends up sending a fairly bleak message about the perils of intellectual retreat from the world of action. If the movie wants to be examined as an allegory - and it wants this very, very much - what can we say about the condescending disregard with which its heroine treats everyone and everything around her, and where she ends up because of it? How about "if intellectualism is not informed by engagement with the human and political realities of the world around it, it might as well be compassionately strangled before it can be stoned to death for being such a condescending, functionally useless waste of time"? Sure, but anyone with any sense knows that already, whether or not they had to watch Agora to be reminded of it.

[EDIT: The politics of adaptation are for another day - perhaps the same day we all sit down and talk about whether video games are art! - but in short, fuck this movie.]

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