REVIEW: Agony (2020)

dir. Michele Civetta.

When New York artist Isidora (Asia Argento) receives word that her mother has passed away it comes as a shock: not least because her father had long maintained that she died years ago. Journeying to Tuscany for the funeral with her husband and young daughter, Isidora soon begins to piece together fragments of her own half-remembered childhood, complicated by the mysterious occult history of her mother’s estate and the ongoing superstition of the local townspeople.

There’s a powerful stream of survival flowing through the centre of Civetta’s directorial debut, one given extra weight by the meta-casting of Argento, someone who has spoken publicly about her experience as a victim of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein (though it is worth noting that Argento herself was also accused of sexual offences against a minor, a matter subsequently settled out of court). Isidora has suffered some unnamed pre-teen trauma – one that appears repressed and fragmented, buried in both the boggy soil of her own subconscious and the local cemetery, but which in both cases is pushing its bloodied fingers back towards the sky. Argento plays this well, if a little broadly at times: an authenticity glimmering behind her wild eyes as she descends into paranoid (epiphanic?) delusions (revelations?) about who exactly is responsible for both her own sublimated past and her mother’s death.

In self-reflexive layers Civetta also draws down deep from the Argento name, with garish filters transforming several sequences into giallo-esque homages which recall the career of Asia’s father Dario. Despite this Agony’s aesthetic works best in the more nuanced moments – a gorgeously composed dining room scene that mirrors renaissance art, or elegiac tracking shots overlaid with Hunt and Jóhannsson’s unctuous score.

Unfortunately these subtler moments become increasingly rare as the plot – and Isidora’s sanity – swirl into progressively manic hysteria, borrowing beats from The Wicker Man and Argento Snr’s oeuvre. The final reel offers a few shivers but ultimately undercuts the loftier promises from earlier on, making this a slightly confused chiller that throws several mad women in the attic in the hope that one of them burns the house down.

Tim Coleman

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