And now, Agora

agoraLets talk film connections… well, here’s an example of one anyway- having watched Oliver Stone’s Alexander a few nights ago, I followed it up with another film set in the Ancient World- Alejandro Amenabar’s magnificent Agora. The connection is simple enough:  Alexander closes with Ptolemy an old man in the city of Alexandria in 285 BC, a centre of learning with a library that has teased and bewitched historians and academics for centuries regards the treasures it held within. Agora returns us to the Library of Alexandria in 400 AD, or thereabouts, and concerns the destruction of what remains of the library and how it ties into the fate of Hypatia, one of the most famous women of the ancient world who was killed by a Christian mob – perhaps a key event that signalled humanity descending into the Dark Ages. I think its a great film -much better than Alexander, by the way- and am always frustrated by how it seems to have slipped under most peoples radar. I don’t know if its relative obscurity is because its an independent, European film with limited distribution channels (I had to import a French Blu-ray several years ago to see it) or something down to its rather negative viewpoint of religion and early, formative Christianity in particular. I’d urge anyone who gets the opportunity to give Agora a watch.

Regards historical films. Does one judge Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus by its historical accuracy, or by whether its a great story well told? Should one disparage Oliver Stone’s Alexander because of his artistic license regards real events or academic debate, or just take it as a great romantic yarn about a major historical figure? Films are products of their time, and Spartacus is clearly a 1950s film and Alexander clearly a film with modern sensibilities concerned with the tensions between West and East that continue to dominate political discourse. Should any concern regards historical accuracy impact what one thinks of either film? How far can one go with historical accuracy before it lessens the entertainment value or dramatic qualities of a film?

agora2As far as I can tell, Agora is surprisingly accurate regards the events it portrays. Its Alexandria is a city in decline, with the Roman Empire on the wane, its pagan culture and Gods fading away to the steady rise of Christianity. There is a real feeling of change, the close of one era and the beginning of another. The Library of Alexandria has at this point been reduced to what scrolls remain in the Serapeion, a complex part Temple, part University, which is presumably a pale shadow of the Library’s earlier glory. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher who teaches there and works to make some sense of humanity’s place in the universe- she looks up longingly at the stars, trying to make sense of them, reaching for the perspective that the camera gifts us with our Gods-Eye views of the world (which I’ll come to later). I understand that the film largely exaggerates her intellectual prowess and what she discovers, but in most other respects it seems very fair to her and largely accurate. She feels like a very modern woman, independent, not needing the company or love of a man (rejecting overtures from a student) or feeling it necessary to fulfil the usual tasks of a woman. While not a Christian (the film infers she was, perhaps unsurprisingly as a scientist and philosopher, also an atheist) she had freinds who were Christians, most notably Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Roman prefect of Egypt whose friendship caused her downfall as it made her a target of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria who was feuding with Orestes for control of the city.  

I consider Agora a simply magnificent film and one of my favourites of the last twenty years. I think its beautifully well-made, looking absolutely convincing with excellent art direction and wonderful sets, featuring a very good cast, which also includes Max Minghella and Rupert Evans. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in possibly the actresses finest role. Agora can be seen as a very sobering, even quite depressing film with a rather negative view of humanity, religion and Christianity in particular- moreover, how religion, or especially religion, suffers from very human failings such as intolerance and tribal politics. There is a sense of seeing humanity at its very best, but also at its very worst. I think the film has something to say, and says it very well. There is a real sense of perspective offered by the film, regards our place in the cosmos, our fragility, and how transient and unimportant our human concerns can seem: at certain times the film literally gifts us a Gods-Eye view of events, seeing the Earth from space and in some shots sweeping down from  a global view to gradually close in on the North African shoreline and further down to street level. At other times he camera rises up from scenes, almost reducing people to ants in the landscape. Its an almost revelatory suggestion of time and space and history made tangible, and quite intoxicating.

agora3In 1980 I learned of the Library of Alexandria through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series, when through the magic of miniature effects and video compositing Sagan walked through the halls of the library talking about all the books and essays lost to us forever when it was burned down in the 4th Century AD. Sagan was a great populariser of science but tended to romanticise; the Library of Alexandria he walks through is glorious, huge; just how much of the library was even left by the 4th Century AD when Hypatia lived is open to debate among historians. Sagan cites the library’s destruction as the onset of the Dark Ages, that it lost to us all the works within, but in truth, no written texts from the Ancient world could have possibly survived to the present day even had the library not been sacked and burned. Its a point raised by Oliver Stone in his Alexander commentary that the memoirs that Ptolemy is seen writing about Alexander, telling us his story, did not survive and were lost to antiquity, ensuring that Alexander would remain an enigma to us. Preserving ancient works would have entailed copying them, repeatedly over long centuries and so many generations, over and over, with subsequent danger of embellishment or editing. Books and scrolls were on papyrus, and individually handwritten/copied, not printed. So it was never likely any of those ancient works could have lasted a few centuries (Ptolemy’s memoirs probably being lost before even Hypatia’s day), never mind millennia to the present day; but Sagan was right about the sense of tragic loss and the period of enlightenment shattered by barbarian hordes pulling humanity down into the Dark Ages. That being said, Hypatia of course sees nothing wrong with having slaves, so even that sense of ‘enlightenment’ that Sagan eulogised should be questioned.


The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

fall22016.37: The Fall of the Roman Empire (Network Airing)

Back when I saw Gladiator, people often seemed to talk about The Fall of the Roman Empire, and now I know why- the first twenty minutes or so of Gladiator is pretty much the first hour of The Fall of the Roman Empire. We meet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on a long campaign away from Rome battling the Germanic barbarian hordes. Vast dark forests, falling snow… just like in Ridley Scott’s movie. Noble Roman army Commander Livius (Stephen Boyd), who is in love with Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) is the man that Aurelius wishes his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), could have been. Surely I’ve seen this film before, I thought, only it starred Richard Harris, Russell Crowe , Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix? Indeed, other than the character of Livius being named Maximus in the Ridley Scott film, even the characters names are the same.

Aurelius is close to dying and advises Livius that it is he who Aurelius intends to be his heir. Unfortunately before Aurelius can put things in writing to ensure his wishes are obeyed, he is murdered by aides of Commodus and it is he who becomes Emperor.  It is only at this point that the two films diverge, Gladiator becoming a Ben Hur-inspired story of betrayal and revenge of a murdered family, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire descends into something of a long-winded potboiler. At least we care about what happens to Maximus- in this film, Livius, by allowing Commodus to the throne without any argument, actually dooms Rome. Some kind of hero. Even at the end of the film with half the cast dead and Rome finally falling apart, all I could do was point at Livius and say “it’s all his fault!” With heroes like that, who needs villains?

The Fall of the Roman Empire dates back to the tail-end of the period of big historical/ Biblical epics that gave us Ben Hur,Quo Vadis, The Robe, Cleopatra and Spartacus and so many others. The Fall of the Roman Empire may actually have been responsible for ending that cycle of films because it is pretty awful and was a terrible commercial failure at the time (less than two million earned against a $20 million budget, a shortfall that was catastrophic).

The problem is the script. This is an overlong and dreary film- at something around three hours long it actually feels much longer. Its certainly is ambitious -its huge scale alone is testament to that- but the film needs some solid foundation to its spectacle. The cast all seem to be woefully miscast (Boyd is a good villain, but a lousy hero, for instance) and all at the mercy of the terrible script- the dialogue really is simply awful. Director Anthony Mann seems more interested in the huge scale of the production and getting it on the screen than looking after his actors and giving them any meaningful direction. Yeah, he put impressive visuals on the screen but it’s all for nothing, a warning for future directors of blockbusters that doesn’t seem to have been heeded.


Visually it really is quite spectacular. The sets are terrific and the photography really quite beautiful, particularly the outside location stuff- at times it looks quite modern. The scale is huge; The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most impressive such films that I have ever seen- huge outdoor sets,with  vast armies of extras. The scale is quite breathtaking, particularly as it’s of the pre-CGI era when the massive crowds are real (an organisational nightmare I’m sure) and likewise the sets too. Sometimes I would look at some of the shots convinced it involved a matte painting but then the camera would move and the extras in the distance reveal its all indeed quite real. Incredible production design really- quite immense, but it only accentuates how terrible the story is. You don’t really care about any of the characters, none of them really convince. It’s a terrible mess of a film, well-intentioned that it may have been. A cast of thousands can be just as boring as a modern blockbuster with thousands of virtual characters. Maybe the film-makers thought that with such huge sets and vast extras that that would be enough, that their work was done. Alas, they hadn’t really started.

But it does really look beautiful.