Agatha (2022)

Agatha opens in darkness. A dim light is introduced as a woman’s hand pulls loose bricks from a wall, and reaches into the shadowy niche beyond to extract a mysterious wrapped object, and to observe it under an electric bulb. There is then a cutaway to an old crone crossing a misty field, apparently some centuries earlier, and a further cut from that scene to a homeless man (Nathan Lewis) finding a severed hand near his outdoor fire, and warning an intruder to this wasteland – the coughing, wheezing, smartphone-toting Professor (Ryan Whiting) – that “It’s not safe here!” and “It’s too late!” Indeed, the whole film is structured this way, as a gradual revelation of hidden secrets, impending dooms and lost associations, brought together across time in irrational fashion – and its story comes in fragmented form, told with almost no dialogue.

Bridgeport, Connecticut is a place with history. In 1653, Goody Knapp was hanged from a tree there for witchcraft. In the twentieth century, the city was industrialised, and then de-industrialised, and parts of it have since suffered the rust and ruin of neglect. All this is in evidence in Agatha, whose non-linear narrative disorientingly contracts time and confounds space, folding different layers of local history over one another recursively. 

At the same time, while filmmaking couple Kelly Bigelow Becerra and Roland Becerra are themselves residents of the actual Bridgeport, their film is a sinister simulacrum of the city, painstakingly recreated over ten years in the couple’s living room. This is a home-made, hermetic world, not unlike the claustrophobic spaces of Weston Terray’s Precarious (2020), also shot in a living room – and the unsettling, jarring hyperreality of this carefully crafted confection is instantiated and accentuated by the film’s chosen form, a weird merger of the real and the animated, where actors are rotoscoped into juddery avatars in exquisitely (if intensely) coloured, painterly milieux. This is a Ballardian landscape of motorways, underpasses, abandoned buildings and empty, autumnal suburbs, where nature is slowly reclaiming its due, and where the uncanny valley is right at home. JS-Horseman’s chilling synthscapes and sound design only add to the unnerving effect.

Upset by news that he is terminally ill, as well as by other things, the middle-aged, suicidal, creepily voyeuristic Professor notices the woman next door Agatha (Emily Joyce-Dial) engaged in a peculiar blood ritual in her garden, and blackmails her into using her powers – passed down the female line from a witch hanged centuries earlier – to cure his disease. Yet as his own guilty secret outs, and a coven of hooded figures circles, the Professor will end up punished and absorbed into this environment, in a story – an American story – of patriarchal oppression and female regeneration that has echoed down the ages.

Reminiscent of Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016) in the way its characters use occult rites to work through injustice and trauma, Agatha gives the whole of Bridgeport an ominous, apocalyptic look, whether as a reflection of the ambient urban decay, or as an externalisation of the Professor’s own crumbling interior and approaching end time. As narrative pieces are allowed to fall into place, filling the gaps and ellipses of what has preceded in a manner that does not ever fully make sense or quite close the circle, viewers are invited to become very lost on their trip through this timeless, paradoxical netherworld.

In the end, the brick is restored to its place in the wall, leaving us, aptly, once more in the dark – and what a peculiar pleasure it is being there, bewildered by the bizarre beauty and otherworldy atmosphere of the Becerras’ enchanting bewitchment, where history is resurrected to repeat itself, and even the name Agatha is passed down the generations.  

strap: Kelly Bigelow Becerra and Roland Becerra’s rotoscoped debut feature is a hermetic, home-made vision of bewitching ritual in a diseased America

© Anton Bitel