Film review – Agora (2009)

24 November 2010
Agora: Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

After science fiction and horror, one of the genres with the most potential to allegorically explore contemporary issues is the historical drama. Exploring the ideological battle between the roles of religion, science and philosophy in social and political discourse, Agora is one such film. Set in the Roman Egyptian city Alexandria in the 4th century Agora is something of a revisionist epic that is less about male heroes in sandals achieving glory with their swords and more about celebrating the achievements of proto-feminist mathematician, philosopher and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) in an era of religious turmoil.

While the various men in the film are seen preaching the supposedly definitive virtues of their chosen religion, Hypatia is seen teaching, engaged in early scientific and astronomical research, and calling for calm and mutual respect. Her scientific work, in particular on the movement of celestial bodies, is often presented in Agora with the sort of grandiosity that other films reserve for the climax of a great battle scene. When Hypatia has her various breakthroughs the music swells and the tempo of the editing increases to heroically present such moments. In this way director and co-writer Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside) stylistically privileges the pursuit of knowledge and rational thought. On the other hand, at the conclusion of the first half of the film when the Christian hordes gain control of the city, over run the Library of the Serapeum and destroy its contents, the camera is turned upside-down to depict the triumph of religious fundamentalism over intellectual enquiry as an example of the world literally turning itself on its head.

Agora: Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

The most noticeable stylistic effect utilised by Amenábar are several moments throughout the film where the camera pulls back from an aerial shot of Alexandria to supposedly film Earth from space. Such shots effectively function as extreme establishing shots to locate the themes of the film as belonging to the entire planet, not just the specific time and place that Agora is set in. When the camera zooms up into space to look down upon Earth, which looks the same then as it does now, it not only puts the audience in the position of an absent god but shows us the universal and timeless nature of the film’s themes.

To give the film a human-interest angle and to create focal points for the various political and religious factions, Agora includes a love triangle subplot between Hypatia, one of her students, the aristocrat Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and one of her slaves, Davus (Max Minghella). As a woman devoted to her work teaching philosophy Hypatia has no desire to marry and end her professional career, plus she is extremely wary of the romanticised visions of what constitutes as love and demonstrates her cynicism by giving Orestes a very abject reminder of a significant element of womanhood that he probably wasn’t thinking about while publicly serenading her.

Agora: Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella)

Unfortunately, by giving the love-triangle narrative so much status within the film, Agora comes dangerously close to undermining the way it presents Hypatia as a strong and independent woman. Despite the character’s rejection of marriage, she becomes too readily defined as an object of romantic desire by this very familiar narrative structure. Amid the changing balances of power throughout the film, Orestes and Davus support and defend Hypatia in their own ways but rather than the audience viewing their devotion as that of men in awe of her teachings, this view is clouded by the suggestion that they are just love sick.

Agora is a film more to be admired than truly enjoyed. It effectively dramatises the events that occurred in the life of a remarkable woman in order to critique the intrusiveness of religion on intellectual and political discourse. Made at a time when pockets of the Christian Right are increasingly attempting to depict other religious groups as violent barbarians, Agora is also commendable for reminding audiences about the less than noble origins of Christianity. However, Agora is ultimately weighed down by the lumbering nature of the historical epic genre. The sweeping shots of the reconstructed settings and the elaborate crowd scenes are impressive but feel strikingly empty in contrast to the core of the film, which is Hypatia’s relentless philosophical and scientific enquiry. Agora could have been a powerfully subversive feminist film, but while it does have its moments it never truly lives up to its ambitious potential.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Robin Hood (2010)

12 May 2010
Robin Hood: Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe)

Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe)

Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is something of an origins film designed to give a credible back-story to the mythical hero who lived sometime in 13th century England, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. In this new film Robin Longstride (as he is known in this film) is introduced as a solider from King Richard The Lionheart’s army. Robin’s disgust at what happened during the Crusades has compelled him to abandon the subsequent war against France and return home. On his way back he is compelled to fulfil the wish of a dying knight and becomes tangled up in both the affairs of the over-taxed city of Nottingham and the bigger threats to England from within and without.

Scott makes two bold moves by actually ending his film at the point that most Robin Hood films focus on  – Robin and his followers creating a secret community in the woods – and deliberately avoiding anything this seems too outlandishly mythical, in order to give the story some sense of (invented) historical integrity. Remember how tedious it was to discover that Troy contained none of the supernatural elements that made the original Greek myths so captivating? That is close to how it feels watching a version of Robin Hood that has decided to remove all the aspects of the story that made it so entertaining in the first place.

Robin Hood: Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett)

Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett)

With both the director of Gladiator and its star Russell Crowe on board (working together for the fifth time) you may expect Robin Hood to be a film that at least, like Gladiator, consists of a series of impressive action sequences interspersed with overly earnest and clunky dialogue. Instead, despite a strong opening, Robin Hood is mainly just overly earnest and clunky dialogue with far too much unnecessarily convoluted plot detail.

Crowe never endears his version of Robin to the audience. It certainly doesn’t help that instead of making Robin a loveable rogue he is reduced to a pompous Braveheart-type warrior-of-the-people character. The final nail of the coffin is the unintentional parody of the ‘hero shot’ where Crowe emerges from the ocean screaming in slow motion. Cate Blanchett seems on autopilot as the supposedly tough and independent Marion Loxley and even the presence of Max von Sydow, William Hurt and Danny Huston does little to redeem the film.

Robin Hood: Prince John (Oscar Isaac)

Prince John (Oscar Isaac)

The film has three villains and none of them are particularly interesting. Prince John is played by Oscar Isaac, who was sensational in Balibo but in this film just seems to repeat Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top villainous acting from Gladiator. Mark Strong does a little better as the treacherous Godfrey, the film’s main villain, but Matthew Macfadyen gets almost nothing to do as the Sheriff of Nottingham who in this film is relegated to an almost insignificant role.

Robin Hood is a bland film and by trying to appear so respectable it has lost most of the charm of the original folklore. The handful of ye olde mead drinking scenes, complete with lusty wenches and rowdy ballads, are embarrassing and even the cinematography and climatic battle sequence (when it finally arrives) feel flat and lifeless. Ridley Scott can’t always be expected to make films of the calibre of Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise but Robin Hood is one of his biggest disappointments yet.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Robert Connolly interview (Balibo)

20 August 2009
Writer/director Robert Connolly

Writer/director Robert Connolly

I meet writer/director Robert Connolly on the day that his latest film, Balibo, received a general theatrical release all over Australia. Connolly’s extraordinary film depicts what happened to the Australian journalist Roger East in 1975 when he went looking for five younger journalists after they went missing while reporting on the impending Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Connolly has just come off a gruelling three-week promotional tour all over Australia and although very keen to chat with me, he is irked by the criticism about the film’s occasional use of handheld cameras.

“The handheld in Balibo is so not overt,” Connolly tells me, “but it’s what we did because that was how those guys filmed.”

Connolly is referring to the fact that a lot of technology from the 1970s was used to film the Balibo Five scenes.

“I used ingenue lenses from the ‘70s, standard 16 lenses not super-16 lenses, I graded it – using Brett Manson, an amazing grader who also did Tsotsi – to make it look like reversal, we used a faster stock that had more grain in it and a whole range of things. We emulated the style of that time with the camera movements – handheld!”

Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters

Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters

I have to admit that I was surprised to hear that other people had made such comments because the use of handheld in Balibo is minor and when it is used it feels stylistically correct. Perhaps the issue has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the people making the criticisms?

“Filmmakers took the camera off the tripod four years ago – continuing to complain about that is getting embarrassing.”

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Film review – Balibo (2009)

10 August 2009
José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia)

José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia)

The Australian writer/director Robert Connolly had already established himself as a director to keep an eye out for with The Bank (2001) being a first rate corporate thriller and Three Dollars (2005) wonderfully articulating lower-middle class angst way before it was fashionable. However, with Balibo Connolly has exceeded all previous expectations and made a masterpiece of modern Australian cinema. Balibo begins in present day East Timor with the recording of an oral history being given by a woman who was a young girl during the 1975 Indonesian invasion. Her story – which at the end of the film we are reminded is but one of the lifetime of stories she has – is about Roger East, an Australian journalist who went looking for five younger journalists who went missing while reporting on the Indonesian invasion. The original five journalists became known as the Balibo Five and the Indonesian army murdered them all. Beginning the film with the recording of an oral history establishes that the events that are about to be depicted in the film have come from the testimony of eyewitnesses; testimonies that differ significantly from the official position of the Australian and Indonesian governments who still claim that the journalists were simply caught in crossfire.

Balibo is cleverly constructed as a dual narrative with the flashback scenes depicting the journey of the Balibo Five being intercut with the scenes depicting East following in their footsteps. This not only keeps the film moving at a brisk pace and gives both stories equal importance, but it provides an intrinsic link between the two stories. It is a remarkable accomplishment both in terms of story structure and film editing. Balibo is also beautifully shot and the scenes depicting the Balibo Five are all slightly over-lit to provide further contrast with the Roger East scenes. All the characters are fully fleshed out entities and the lighter moments and interaction between them serves to both relieve the tension and foreshadow the coming tragedy. The young cast portraying the Balibo Five are wonderful as is Oscar Isaac who plays José Ramos-Horta, the man who sought out East and would later become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

02Anthony LaPaglia portrays East as the classic burnt-out journalist figure, who is lured reluctantly back into action in the pursuit of justice. East may initially seem like a recognisable stock character but LaPaglia embodies him so confidently and with such a genuine blend of compassion, old-school toughness and righteousness, while not ignoring his flaws and weaknesses, that East is presented on screen as the real deal. LaPaglia has always been an excellent and reliable actor but nothing he has done before will prepare you for the power and conviction that he displays in Balibo. Roger East is to LaPaglia what Jake La Motta was to De Niro, what Terry Malloy was to Brando, and more recently, what Daniel Plainview was to Day-Lewis. This is the craft of acting at its absolute best.

Connolly wrote the screenplay with David Williamson, using Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five as their primary reference point. Williamson presence is notable and Balibo contains the best work he has done since he hit his peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Part of what makes Balibo such a great film is that among its politics and desire to set the record straight is a hugely entertaining film with appealing characters. It is not overly didactic or preachy and instead gets the perfect balance of emotional impact, political commentary and historical re-enactment. Giving a human story to acts of genocide is a powerful tool that cinema has to communicate stories that must be told and in this way Balibo is comparable to films of recent years such as Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda although it is closer in tone to the very underrated 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo. Balibo, however, is the best of the lot.

36The key moment in Balibo is the scene where Ramos-Horta heatedly challenges East about the fact that East is trying to discover what happened to five white men while hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are being massacred. It’s a valid question and one that applies to the actual film itself. The response that East gives is sadly all too true – the English-speaking media (and cinema audiences) are simply not going to care about thousands of anonymous brown people but focusing on the fate of five white people will at least get our attention to the fact that gross acts of inhumanity were committed.

Balibo is an astonishing film with many heartbreaking scenes. The ending will leave you shattered and Australians especially will feel a deep sense of painful recognition over the fact that the virtue of being Australian no longer provides the automatic protection throughout the rest of the world that we once naively thought it did. This is a story that had to be told and it has been told in the very best way. This is as good as cinema gets – the story may be devastating but as a cinematic accomplishment, Balibo is something to be celebrated.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s interview with writer/director Robert Connolly.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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