Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pimping without the anecdote

One of the great things about being a film critic is that you don't have to pay to see movies.

I'm talking about full-time critics here. Me, I'm a part-time critic who reviews mostly films that are already available on DVD, that weren't reviewed by someone at my site when they were in theaters. But I do get sent to new releases from time to time, and it's then that I relish the simple pleasure of seeing a movie on the big screen without pulling out my wallet.

So a movie has got to be pretty good if I basically nullify that free screening by paying to see it a second time.

Which is what I did this past weekend with Alejandro Amenabar's Agora, a day after it opened in a scant single theater in Los Angeles. I wanted my wife to see it, and I also wanted to see the first 5-7 minutes I missed during my first screening. But more importantly, I just wanted to take in the spectacle again for myself, as this is a film that demands to be seen in a large format.

When I first wrote about Agora ten days ago, I spent nearly 1600 of a whopping 2000 words talking about how I almost missed the screening due to GPS problems. But that was really burying the lead. The lead was that this is a big, bold, idea-filled, scintillating epic, and that without my help -- or even with it -- it will get seen by almost nobody in this country. (Might as well throw some help its way anyway, even if it will only result in a dozen more ticket sales at most.)

Of course, the reason Agora isn't opening in more theaters, or getting any kind of press at all, is that it is highly critical of Christianity. And that's a tough pill for American Christians to swallow. (But apparently, Spanish Christians don't have much of a problem with it -- Agora was the highest grossing film of 2009 in Spain.) However, I think if people see it in the cities where it's open -- currently, only New York and Los Angeles -- then it will at least open in places like Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia, and who knows where else if it does well there. So, that's my goal here.

The film is about the sea change taking place in Alexandra, Egypt, during the 4th century A.D., when Christianity is rapidly gaining the foothold that would eventually criminalize scientific inquiry and pave the way for 1200 years worth of the Dark Ages. So, a pretty important pivot point in human history. The main character is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a respected philosopher who, at the film's outset, teaches astronomy to young Alexandrian men. But the intellectual status quo is taken by storm (literally) by the Christians, who are given permission by the Roman Emperor to ransack the Alexandria Library, and destroy whatever they can get their hands on -- including the thousands of scrolls containing all the wisdom of the world, and the statues and other artwork devoted to the pagan gods who preceded Christianity. The film becomes about the uneasy truce that comes to exist between intellectuals, Christians and Jews, with the Christians ultimately become the violent demagogues as the film moves on.

Agora is a perfect blend of sweeping, grand-scale, big budget historical epic and idea movie. Amenabar shoots the huge Malta set from every angle imaginable -- some will simply take your breath away. And there's a good amount of the sword-and-sandal skirmishes you might expect from a film like this. But at heart, this is a movie about philosophy, about intellectual integrity, and about religion. It's an incredible conversation starter, and it's rich with meaning, not to mention relevance to modern society. Check out the website here.

So if you are reading this and are in either New York or Los Angeles, please go see Agora. It's a feast for both the eyes and the mind. It's the best film I've seen this year.

And without our help, it won't even make $100,000 in this country.

1 comment:

Simon said...

I'd've seen it, had it been playing anywhere. I'm still waiting for the DVD.