In my freshman year in college, a particular mass media theory always fascinated me. The theory suggested that there four types of truths: Absolute, reported, inferred and judgmental. The three latter types involve diverse degrees of subjectivity. Absolute truth is the only ‘real’ truth, but it’s unreachable.
Everything I studied that year onwards was framed by this theory. Deliberate and unintentional manipulation is organic to reporting. History, I began to realize, is impossible to verify and thus, can never accurately embody truth.
Every major and minor historical event has been debated, contested and eventually wrought by nations to fit whatever purpose employed in retelling.
With that concept, I always had problems with historical dramas, especially those alleging “historical accuracy. The “based on a true story slogan slapped at any given opportunity has become nothing more than wobbly banter with endless suggestions.
“Agora, the 2009 Cannes dud from “Open Your Eyes, “The Others and “The Sea Inside Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, is the latest exercise to lay that claim. Unlike the vast majority of historical dramas produced in the US and Europe, this is a rare film which hits close to home, touching upon a controversial period of Egyptian history, pertaining specifically to the recently dubbed “darkest chapter in Coptic Orthodox history.
The film is set in Roman Egypt, the same era extensively covered by Egyptian historian Youssef Zeidan’s best-selling 2008 novel “Azazil. Although overhyped and lacking balance in many parts, Zeidan’s Arabic Booker prize winner is a refined piece of literature, superbly written and thematically engaging.
“Agora, on the other hand, is a shallow, conceited, lackluster period piece unsure whether it wants to be an alternative bona-fide historical epic à la Henry Koster’s “The Robe and William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur or a contemplative study of science vs. religion. The film – which premiered in Cairo last month at the European Film Panorama and is scheduled for release later this month – ultimately fails on both levels; emerging as a juvenile, brash religion bash with no depth or sophisticated vision.
The film chronicles the rapid rise of Christianity in Egypt s Alexandria amid an overreaching wave of conflicts, moral confusion and violence. Christianity, Amenábar suggests, represented a route of freedom for the enslaved poor of the country; a counterfeit promise for a better life, a way out from the miserable existenc they led and a form of rebellion against the ruling class.
At the center of this turbulent epoch is legendary philosopher and astronomer Hypatia (a sympathetic, but dull Rachel Weisz), the first distinguished female figure in mathematics who, the film asserts, was on the verge of identifying the Earth’s correct orbit before she was executed by the Christians for paganism and blasphemy. Daughter of a nobleman, Hypatia is depicted as a gentle, compassionate and over-idealized virgin devoted solely to her science. Her peaceful atheism, Amenábar implies, is more humane, more just than divisive religions. Hypatia’s class is a place of equality; slaves and Romans, Christians and pagans, all share the same privileges.
To inject the story with dramatic pull, Amenábar forces Hypatia into a pointless love triangle involving two of her students: Davus (Anthony Minghella’s son, Max), a Christian slave secretly in love with Hypatia and not wholeheartedly certain about his faith, and bigheaded would-be Roman prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) whose shambling public advances are immediately met with definite rejection from her.
The large-scale spread of Christianity, partly piloted by Cyril (Sami Samir), the future pope of Alexandria, changes everything. Her class, the brotherhood, is disbanded. The library is destroyed. Anarchy increases. Science is disregarded. Religious conflicts skyrocket. Nothing is left of Alexandria, once the capital of civilized world, but ashes of its older self.
A spit of anger so out of character from Hypatia suddenly transforms Davus from genial, loving, bright kid with a tint of sexual frustrations (courtesy of Inas El-Degheidy) into a full-time aimless hooligan. Orestes, meanwhile, embraces Christianity for some inexplicable reason other than sheer desire for adaptability, representing a form of moderate Christianity.
Amenábar’s position is unmistakably anti-religion; both Christianity and Judaism get a rap. The film champions above all science, knowledge and freedom of the mind to go any direction it pleases. His intentions are commendable, his passion is undeniable, but he possesses neither the intellect, nor the chops, to build a remotely convincing argument.
The film understands the mentality of mass mobilization, the impassioned spirit of protests and blinding anger at being oppressed. But it says nil about faith, the mystifying draw of religion or the roots of institutionalized radicalism that are relevant to our present. There’s hardly any positive Christian character in the film; Cyril’s men are depicted as one-track minded demons with no will. Cyril himself, historically recognized as an intellectual titan and a prolific writer, was portrayed as an extremist thug.
The lack of any grey areas in the film is exasperating, giving the viewers no space whatsoever to weigh the unfolding events themselves. The conclusive, categorical nature of Amenábar’s argument eventually backfires, divulging the shortcomings of a filmmaker with an evidently limited vision, who also lacks confidence.
Production values are lush, but not exceptional. The customs are admittingly a feast for the eye. The set, impressive and elaborate, is nonetheless no more accomplished than a TV series like “Rome.
There are some beautifully composed shots here and there, but nothing breathtaking. Even the repeated use of “God’s Eye, Google Earth-like shots grow tired after a while.
The principal idea of the film, that religion and science can never meet, is contextualized in one blunt sentence near the end. “You can’t question your beliefs, Hypatia tells Orestes, “I must.
Not only is Amenábar’s theory extraordinarily crude, it’s outdated. The battle between science and religion was dealt with more complexity, vibrance and esteem half a century ago in Stanley Kramer’s “Inherit the Wind. Tarkovsky delivered the greatest modern statement about the nature of faith in “Stalker 31 years ago. Even Jessica Hausner’s brilliantly wry “Lourdes from last year is much more compelling, sharper and more enlightening than this yarn.
Although the critical reaction to the film in both Cannes and Toronto has been mostly negative, critics in Egypt showed unusual enthusiasm for it. While I highly respect the opinions of some of them, I was utterly bewildered by the unconditional rave of others. One critic in precise praised the film for “clearing the Muslims’ hands from the widespread accusation of burning the Library of Alexandria. How this detail can be a valid point for praising a film, is beyond me, especially that there are four theories about who may have been responsible for the partial or complete destruction of the library, and each has been the subject of countless debates.
Prior to its sold-out screening last month, Bishop Bishoy has reportedly attempted to cancel the screening of the film. Whether the film will be released as scheduled this month remains doubtful, given the recent shootings at Nagaa Hammadi.
Bishop Bishoy’s relentless campaign to prevent the film’s release illustrates a fact worth of note: the Church’s denial to confess the mere prospect of mistakes that may have been committed in the past. The ever-present self-righteous philosophy of the Church, exemplified by Pope Shenouda’s recent statement that Christians are incapable of committing crimes, is more intriguing than anything in this film; a notion that warrants a much better film than that.
“Agora is a simpleminded cocktail of poorly realized ideas as superficial and phony as any average Hollywood production. Almost none of
the events shown here have been proven, including Cyril’s responsibility for Hypatia’s death. He was sanctified years later.
Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman told me last month that history can easily bog down the cinematic experience, that it could easily be lost amid debating the exactness of depicted events.
“Agora is a case in point. And when the history layers are peeled off, there’s nothing much to be found but the half-baked ideas of a mishandled subject.