Heaven and Hell

Photo: Teresa Isasi

Although they sneer at the very notion of religious faith, skeptics and atheists have their own martyrs—high among them Hypatia, the brilliant, beauteous, avowedly virginal fourth-century philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and Carl Sagan pinup girl. In Alejandro Amenábar’s somber and bloody Agora, her big sandals are filled by Rachel Weisz, who has eyes so wide apart they seem made to take in the whole of the cosmos, and British diction so crisp and forceful that her words could carry far into space. That’s where we first hear her voice, in fact. As she mulls over the trajectories of the stars, the camera descends from on high, way on high, above the Earth itself, to Alexandria, the civilized Egyptian outpost of the teetering Roman Empire, and to the stone hall in which Hypatia holds forth while her students (male, besotted) drink in her words. Weisz is an excellent Hypatia. For all her intelligence, there’s something childish, off-kilter, vaguely otherworldly in her aura. She’s just the type to be gazing into the heavens while around her all hell breaks loose.

The title refers to the public space in front of Alexandria’s illustrious library, although in light of what happens there, a better one might be Agoraphobia. The ruling pagan Ptolemies (among them Michael Lonsdale as Hypatia’s father, the head librarian) attack the obstreperous Parabaloni Christians, who prove to be greater in numbers and more ferocious than the pagan pointy-heads anticipate. When the blood finally dries, the Christian rabble has overrun Alexandria (and the empire), the Ptolemies are kaput, the Jews are (again) in exile, and the library—the repository of centuries of Hellenic wisdom—has been turned into a barnyard. Agora doesn’t merely exalt the empirical outlook of Hypatia, it portrays religious faith—all religious faith—as monomaniacal superstition, a fount of anti-truth. Poor Hypatia is both behind and ahead of the curve. When the hallowed conceit that the cosmos revolves around Earth looks wobbly, damned if she’ll fit the data to the doctrine. She’ll get to the bottom (or top) of it even if humans turn out not to be the be-all and end-all.

Amenábar, who dramatized the schism between flesh and spirit in works as various as The Sea Inside and the ghost story The Others, allegedly didn’t set out to make a movie that cried “A plague on all your houses of worship!” He and co-writer Mateo Gil stumbled on Hypatia while researching a project about people who, in Gil’s words, “managed to rise above the circumstances of the moment of history in which they lived by looking up at the stars and wondering who we are, where we are, and what it all means.” Would that we all could be suitable subjects! In any case, Agora sticks to the arc laid out in Justin Pollard and Howard Reid’s fast-paced The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. (Pollard was a consultant.) It’s true that Hypatia probably spent more time on Neoplatonism than astronomy, but Neoplatonism would have been, by definition, less visual. Hypatia also didn’t have a slave-cum-student named Davus (Max Minghella) who was torn between his love for her and his burgeoning Christian faith, but Davus makes a good vehicle for dramatizing how even good, educated, imaginative people can be impelled to get their scriptures in a twist. One of the best moments is when Hypatia’s onetime student and suitor, the prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac), pushes through a crowd that wants to rip him to shreds, yelling he’s as much of a Christian as they are. Cyril, the bishop who urges his followers to teach Orestes a lesson by visiting their wrath upon his “witch” and “whore,” is better known as “Saint Cyril.”

Given all the weighty colloquia, Agora has remarkably few bad laughs, and the CGI re-creations of ancient Alexandria are so detailed I wanted to freeze the frame and linger on the city’s layout. I did keep being jarred by the chief loudmouth Christian stone-thrower, who looks like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, down to the gap in his front teeth. But maybe the early Christians are meant to look Semitic—they mostly were. It’s too bad Muhammad isn’t in this thing (he hadn’t been born), or fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims could bond on the Agora picket line and just for yuks hurl stones at the women waiting to get into Sex and the City 2.

The most depressing thing about Sex and the City 2 is that it seems to justify every nasty thing said and written about the series and first feature film. The SATC dynamic has always been fragile, but at its most affecting you could see beyond the costumes and artifice and feel the characters fighting for validation—and connecting with one another in their struggle. Now there’s nothing but surface. And what a surface.

The film is an epic eyesore. It’s as if they set out to make a movie that said, “You’re right! We are hideous!” It begins with the nightmarish manic gaiety of Mamma Mia!, with strenuous lockjawed smiles that make you think you’re watching stroke victims. Then Liza Minnelli shows up to perform a gay marriage. Heralded (and hooted at) as the embodiment of camp unreality, she looks more human—nervous but happy to belong somewhere—than the four leads.

The thinking behind the movie (written and directed by Michael Patrick King) is undisguised. Let’s start with an over-the-top gay wedding! Then we’ll send the girls to Abu Dhabi so they can rile up the fundamentalists with their sexuality! Then they’ll make fun of women in niqab (“Certainly cuts down on the Botox bill!”) but later show (campy) feminist solidarity! Won’t they look great swishing around the desert being waited on by smooth young Arab men?

Amy Odell, of nymag.com’s The Cut, accompanied me to the screening and was kind enough to whisper that a particular dress of Carrie’s cost 50 grand. But what’s the point of spending that much when the cinematographer, John Thomas, lights Sarah Jessica Parker to bring out the leatheriness of her skin? How did he manage to mummify the lovely Cynthia Nixon? Kim Cattrall, fresh off her witty, subtle work in The Ghost Writer, is costumed to look like a cross between (late) Mae West and (dead) Bea Arthur. Kristin Davis gets by (just) pulling little-girl faces, probably for the last time.

For all the sniggery double entendres, virtually all of Sex and the City 2 is a pale shade of vanilla. But there is this one moment … Cattrall, in short shorts in the Arab marketplace, has a flurry of hot flashes, drops to the ground, and writhes around screaming, “I have sex, yes! I quite enjoy it!” People coming out of surgery with bad reactions to the anesthesia have been known to behave like that, which gives it some fleeting connection to real life.

Go to my blog The Projectionist for a review of George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead, a rambling but surprisingly handsome, well-acted mix of lefty sociology and militant nihilist splatter.

Newmarket Films. NR.

Sex and the City 2
Warner Bros. Pictures. R.

Heaven and Hell