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Friday, March 4, 2011
'Of Gods and Men'/'Agora (Japan title: Alexandria)'
What happens when faith is stretched too far?
Just a quick glance at the headlines will reveal how many conflicts and massacres in our world find their roots in religious differences. While believers of any given faith are quick to blame the misguided and evil intentions of all those other religions, the wise will assert that all religions have blood on their hands. (Well, maybe not the Jains.)
And yet, the same religion can inspire both the Thirty Years' War and Bach's cantatas, suicide bombers and the Sufi poetry of Rumi. Religion is the repository of man's highest and lowest impulses, and time has proven it's nearly impossible to separate the two.
We find both extremes in a pair of films on offer this month: "Of Gods and Men" is a profoundly sympathetic look at the true story of a small French monastery in Algeria caught up in the civil war of the 1990s; "Agora" is a historical drama that is set in Egypt in the days of the Roman Empire and finds pagans, Christians and Jews trying to convert or slaughter each other.
"Of Gods and Men" — which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010, perhaps as penance for recognizing "Antichrist" the year before — is a quiet and rapturous ode to religious faith and courage in the face of terror. Eight Cistercian monks live near a village in the mountainous Maghreb, and while their presence may be a colonial remnant, they've managed to embrace their surroundings, running a free medical clinic, working the fields with the locals and attending village festivals. Rather than proselytize, the monks show a kind respect for their neighbors' Islamic traditions, and are rewarded with the same.
As directed by Xavier Beauvois ("Don't Forget You're Going to Die"), the film spends its first half slowly sinking into the quiet rhythms of monastic life. The director frequently cuts from the stillness of prayer and hymn in the monastery to the noise of bulldozers or helicopters outside, emphasizing both the monks' withdrawal from the world and their vulnerability to encroachment. Sure enough, their idyll is disrupted by news that the wave of extremist violence is drawing closer. (Algeria's annulled elections of 1991 incited a rebellion by fundamentalist groups that soon metastasized into butchery.)
The precariousness of the monks' situation soon becomes clear: the rebels are explicitly targeting foreigners, but the abbot, Christian (Lambert Wilson), rejects army protection, hoping to remain above the fray. The other monks, particularly Celestin (Philippe Laudenbach), are worried that his decision has condemned them to death, a feeling that grows after a menacing nighttime visit from some rebels.
What follows is an agonized, if restrained, debate about whether to stay or flee. Few films have so clearly rendered the fear that terrorists seek to instill, and the individual courage needed by the average person (not the Hollywood action hero) to stand up to it. "Of Gods and Men" knows clearly what it wants to say: that freedom ultimately comes from freeing oneself from the fear of death, and the strength to do so comes not just from faith, but from brotherhood.
Religious intolerance is nothing new, nor — despite what American neo-conservatives like to say — is it unique to Islam. "Agora," released in Japan as "Alexandria," looks at the life and death of fourth-century philosopher and scientist Hypatia of Alexandria, a pagan who wound up being flayed alive and dragged naked through the streets by a mob of Christian zealots.
"Agora" looks very much like your average sword-and-sandal epic — it was even filmed on some of the same locations as "Gladiator" — but it contains much more explosive content. Director Alejandro Amenabar ("The Others," "Open Your Eyes") seeks to fashion a secular parable on reason and tolerance, as contrasted with the feuding and essentially incompatible belief systems of religion.
We first meet Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) as she teaches a class in astronomy at the library of Alexandria, located within the grounds of a temple to the pagan god Serapis. Christians and pagans — such as her students Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Synesius (Rupert Evans) — may argue within her class, but she admonishes them to put aside their differences and recognize their commonality.
When street clashes between the rival religions break out into full-scale ethnic cleansing, Hypatia and her students are besieged within the temple, and personal loyalties are frayed. Hypatia's slave and admirer, Davus (Max Minghella), throws his lot in with the Christians, whose charity and good works he admires, but he's soon recruited into the Parabalani, a fanatical religious militia.
Like a lot of films set in a time of antiquity, the performances here can be hokey — none more than Weisz, as she jabbers along excitedly on the perpetual brink of a scientific breakthrough — but the history is absolutely compelling. Amenabar's boldest move is to portray early Christianity as something not dissimilar to Hamas or Hezbollah, a social movement that can deliver bread to the hungry and give hope to the downtrodden . . . or organize enraged mobs who seem to have forgotten Christ's teachings about casting the first stone.
Some time after a seemingly random shot of a bunch of ants swarming on the ground, the camera rises high above the sacking of the library at the Serapeum, and we see the black-robed Christians engaged in their pillage reduced to tiny, scurrying specks. If there is a god, suggests Amenabar, this is how he sees us.