Daily Archives: July 12, 2010

Agora (Spain 2009)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) demonstrates the questions surrounding gravity and the movement of the Earth to her students in Alexandria, watched by her slave Davus.

After the mildly diverting but ultimately turgid Robin Hood, it was a relief to turn to a filmmaker with more imaginative ideas about presenting historical worlds. Alejandro Amenábar began his career with a string of distinctive films spanning horror, science fiction and melodrama, each of which were big hits at home in Spain. They topped the Spanish box office and broke records but apart from the English language The Others (2001) they haven’t had the same impact abroad. This is unfortunate and serves to highlight the dismissive way in which Anglo-American Cinema relegates any film from another culture to the arthouse sector. Such an approach mars an otherwise interesting review of Agora in Sight and Sound by Sophie Mayer and has formed a confused discourse around the film’s eventual distribution in the UK.

This is the second English language film from Amenábar, featuring an international star in Rachel Weisz and a strong supporting cast. It was produced on a large budget, by European standards, in Malta – standing in for 4th/5th Century Alexandria. The narrative offers us a crucial moment in Mediterranean history – when ‘Christianised’ Roman subjects in the Egyptian city of Alexandria wrested power from the ‘pagan’ Greek aristocracy who had created the renowned library in the city. It presents a political, religious and military struggle around dogma, doctrine and ‘natural philosophy’ that focuses on the pivotal figure of Hypatia, the brilliant astronomer, philosopher and teacher.

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher and teacher, clever and beautiful, who is responsible for the education of the next generation of (male) leaders of Alexandria. The young men adore her, in particular Orestes (Oscar Isaac), but also her own young slave Davus (Max Minghella). But Alexandria is moving towards widespread civil revolt, led by Christian ‘activists’. This leads to a confrontation between the Greeks who still rule the city, the increasing numbers of Christian converts and the Jewish community caught between them. Meanwhile the Roman authorities stand back and play imperial policy games as the occupying power in the region.

Throughout this turmoil, Hypatia tries to continue her scientific work which combines mathematics and astronomy and seeks to theorise about the movement of the Earth and the planets. But she finds herself caught up, as a rationalist, in the religious and political struggles within the city – now led by her ex-pupils.

Wikipedia has a useful entry on Hypatia if, like me, you aren’t familiar with this clearly important historical figure. An agora, by the way, is a public square where proclamations might be made.

Commentary

I found this to be a film which first engaged me through its impressive staging, performances and direction then lost me for a short section when the narrative faltered – but which then grabbed me ferociously for the stunning final third. The flaw in the narrative was the way in which Amenábar attempted to move the story forward, explaining what happened in the interim period via on-screen text accompanied by science fiction-style zooms in and out of Alexandria as a dot on the map. I struggled to pick up the story again for a few minutes. On reflection, I think that presenting this story on film is a very difficult task and that generally Amenábar’s ideas work very well and perhaps when I watch the film again it will flow seamlessly. The other slight weakness was the performance of Oscar Isaac – but perhaps this was because he’d been the rather effete and silly King John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood that I saw the day before. Did his character in Agora really come up with a line of contemporary American speech or did I imagine it? The whole question of casting and dialogue coaching for narratives set in classical Greece/Rome has always been intriguing.

Amenábar chose a casting strategy which seemed based primarily on notions of ‘realism’. The Greeks and Romans are played by West Europeans whereas the Egyptians (i.e. the slaves and the leaders of the Christians) are played by actors from the Mediterranean region or in the case of Hypatia’s older slave and technical assistant Aspasius, the Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi. This strategy produces the first of several controversies likely to be associated with the film. The ‘villains’ of the story are the Christian bishop, and later Saint, Cyril, played here by Sami Samir and the main Christian agitator Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom). I can’t find anything about Samir’s background but I’m familiar with Barhom who is a well-known Palestinian actor from Galilee. So, in one sense, we have ‘authentic’ casting in terms of ethnicity and regional origin. On the other hand, this presents us with Christians whose appearance suggests the modern day Taliban – Ammonius leads a mob dressed in dark robes and headdress, many of whom are heavily bearded.

Sami Samir as Cyril in one of the Spanish posters for the film.

The metaphor/allegory possibilities of the film have been picked up by many commentators and there are several avenues to explore. The film could be taken to be an attack on the traditional institutional hierarchies of the Catholic churches (Orthodox and Roman), on contemporary ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity or perhaps as a general anti-clerical account of the interference of the Church in civil society. There is nothing in Amenábar’s overall approach that recalls Luis Buñuel directly, but when I think about it, several of his films have a stance that is anti-authoritarian and sometimes specifically anti-clerical. (I’m thinking specifically of Mar adentro.)

The film can also be seen as a critique of imperial power in that the Romans are really unable to control the local holders of power and in a sense thus contribute to the carnage. But the central narrative about Hypatia refers to cinematic form of the biopic which in this case combines the story of a rationalist figure attacked by religious fanatics (the Galileo story) and the brilliant woman condemned by the actions of lesser men. Madame Curie comes to mind as a traditional Hollywood biopic with some of these elements. I won’t spoil Agora by revealing which aspects of the biopic are included and which left out.

All of this suggests that there is an enormous range of ideas in Agora and I think it will repay a second and third viewing – and an exploration of historical sources. This was clearly a major undertaking for Amenábar and for a producer/writer/director/composer who produced his early films at a remarkable rate this was a long production process – completion coming five years after the release of Mar adentro. For me, Amenábar is a major director and I’m saddened by the comparative box-office failure of his films outside Spain. You’ll probably need to wait for this film on DVD, but I think that the wait will be worthwhile.

London River (France/Algeria 2009)

Strangers meet in London River

I’ve been waiting for this film ever since I read about the proposed production a couple of years ago and I wasn’t disappointed when it finally opened in the UK. Ironically, I saw it on a Friday night and it’s as far away as you can get from the ‘feelgood’ film that many people feel that they need at the weekend. Philip French in today’s Observer refers to “stoical realism” which is rather good. It’s deeply moving and a fine example of humanist cinema.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Brenda Blethyn is Elisabeth, a widow with a smallholding on Guernsey and Sotigui Kouyaté is Ousmane, a West African working as a forester in France. After the bombings of July 7, 2005 they both travel to London in search of their grown-up children. Elisabeth has not heard from her daughter Jane for a couple of weeks and now she is not answering phone messages. Ousmane has not seen his son since he was a small child. He makes the trip at the behest of his estranged wife in Africa. At some point it is inevitable that Elisabeth and Ousmane will meet as they make enquiries in the same small area of North-East London.

Commentary

Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb gained an international profile with Indigènes (France/Algeria 2006), the hit film that successfully rewrote the history of the African contribution to the liberation of Vichy France in 1944. By contrast, London River is a film which focuses completely on its two central characters and eschews the politics of the bombings. Even so, the film offers several interesting social observations about diversity in contemporary society.The two central performances are excellent – and very different. Bouchareb decided that he wanted to work with Brenda Blethyn based on her Oscar-winning performance in Secrets and Lies and he delayed the shoot by a year until she became available. Kouyaté, a well-known Malian and Parisian actor, had appeared in Bouchareb’s earlier Little Senegal (France 2001). (He sadly died in April this year.) The ‘non-style’ of the film is explained by two factors. First, Bouchareb himself tried hard not be influenced by any other filmmakers and second, he faced severe production restraints. (I would still categorise the film as melodrama despite the lack of ‘excess’ in presentation, but I need to see it again – there is an intriguing metaphor about forestry and elms that I need to think about.)

The exteriors were all shot by a French crew on location in London for just 15 days when the weather was poor and the locals seemingly suspicious. Blethyn had to learn enough French to converse naturally with Kouyaté and for the two of them to improvise on set. The film was shot on 16mm (the Press Pack confusingly suggests that the original aspect ratio was 1: 1.66 but released as 1: 1.85). Interiors were all shot in France. There were also exterior shoots in France and Guernsey.

Apart from the characterisations what struck me most about the film was the representation of London. Most of the action is set in the area around Finsbury Park. Presumably Bouchareb chose this area because it has a large Turkish population and also attracts Arab Muslims. It prompted me to think about Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) in which French star Audrey Tautou plays a Turkish young woman (and in which Sotigui Kouyaté was a Somali man, I think). Frear’s attempted to show the ‘other London’ of the refugee/migrant worker, but even so he didn’t quite get that feel of the ‘outside eye’. For that, you need to go to directors from outside the UK. The shots of Guernsey and Brittany reminded me of Truffaut’s Anne and Muriel (Les deux Anglaises et le continent, 1971) when he tried to use the Celtic connection between Brittany and Wales. But Truffaut also made Fahrenheit 451 in the UK with Roehampton as a futuristic town. Around the same time, Antonioni presented his views of London in Blow-up (1966) and I was reminded of the park in Charlton used as the backdrop for the photograph of the film’s title when the couple in London River sit in the park (see the image above). Again in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Patrice Chérau’s Intimacy (2001) we get a different London as visualised by an outside eye. The difference in Bouchareb’s film is that his choice of location and decision to bring in his own crew and actors (the shopkeeper who is Elisabeth’s landlord during her London visit is played by Roschdy Zem, one of the leads in Indigènes) creates a London community of great diversity. Even an interrogating police officer, who also speaks French, proclaims that he is “a Muslim too”.

This representation of London diversity is both ‘realist’ (London now reasonably claims to be the world’s most cosmopolitan city) and at the same time expressionist in dramatic terms. Elisabeth is presented as coming from Guernsey where her social life is triangulated by her brother, her conversations with her dead husband (killed in the Falklands War and her local church group). The Guernsey setting conveniently suggests why she might have a working knowledge of French (non-UK residents please check out Wikipedia) and it also suggests why she might be overwhelmed by being suddenly plunged into the midst of North London’s streetlife. (This is compounded by the use of French and Arabic as the medium for much of the dialogue.) How her reactions are read by audiences is a function both of Brenda Blethyn’s terrific performance and the experiences of the viewer. As Blethyn herself says, it would be wrong to leap to conclusions about Elisabeth. She is confused, frightened and bewildered. She says things that are easily seen as hateful and offensive, but we should be able to understand what is happening to her. Unfortunately, there are already some stupid comments on IMDB. On the other hand, I note that the highest ratings for the film come from women over 45.

This is one of my films of the year so far. July is the month in the UK when there seems to be a new French film every week. The French films that get to the UK are often very rewarding and London River sets a very high standard for those to follow. Please go and see it.

Here’s the trailer:

The film was released in the UK by a small independent distributor. There is an excellent official website with a downloadable press pack:

http://www.tadrart.com/tessalit/londonriver/gb.html