Agora (2009): Amenabar’s Historical Epic

A cerebral artist who doesn’t like to repeat himself, the Chilean-born, Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar has made four films, with each different from the others.  
Amenabar burst into the international scene with the surreal “Abre Los Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes”), which was later remade into a bad picture by Cameron Crowe, retitled as “Vanilla Sky” and starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz.
Amenabar is best known for the supernatural, English-speaking thriller, “The Others,” starring Nicole Kidman, which was a huge international hit.  He followed it with the 2004 Oscar-winning melodrama, “The Sea Inside,” which dealt with Euthanasia, in which Javier Bardem plays a terminally ill man who fights for his right to die.
And now comes “Agora,” his second English-language production, which world-premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Fest (out of competition) to mixed critical response. The film’s high budget, over $60 million, financed mostly by Telecinco Cinema, the Spanish film company, is a problem for distributors. It’s one of the most expensive art movies ever made in Europe.  I am therefore glad to report that NewMarket will release the film June 4, 2010, exactly one year after it had played at Cannes. 
Narratively and thematically, “Agora” is Amenabar’s revisionist take on the Hollywood’s historical epic, a genre that’s known as the sword-and-sandal epic, with films such as “Ben-Hur” and “The Robe” in the 1950s, and more recently with works by major directors, Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” the Brad Pitt vehcile “Troy,” and Oliver Stone’s “Alexander.”
“Agora” centers on an intriguing historical character, the female scientist Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), who lived in Alexandria during the fourth century AD, during the waning days of the Roman Empire. The daughter of Theron, the director of Alexandria’s Library, Hypatia was a brilliant astronomist and philosopher. 
Hypatia is a meaty role for an actress, a rare female historical character who isn’t defined by sexual politics–by marital or familial status. Hypatia has no husband or lover–her passion is for ideas, for science and progress.
The story begins in 369 AD, when tensions between pagans and Christians in Egypt reach a crisis, setting the stage for an inevitable clash of loyalties.  Initially, in the Alexandria library compound where pupils of all faiths gather to learn under the guidance of Hypatia, these pressures are set aside. Conducting lessons in mathematics and astronomy, Hypatia tackles the riddle of Ptolemy’s theory of the solar system and its planetary orbits.
Soon, however, violent conflicts erupt, and a massacre kills many Christians. Outnumbered, they barricade themselves inside the library for safety. Hypatia is among those trapped, and protectig her safety becomes the primary goal of her pupil Orestes (Oscar Isaac) as well as her slave Davus (Max Minghella), both of whom, we find out, are also in love with her.
From that point on, the saga gets more intimate, unfolding as a strange and complex love triangle, which is put to test under the weight of the city’s violent social upheaval. In the whirlwind of chaos and bloodshed, the three are inevitability separated.
 
It’s a testament to Amenabar’s intelligent approach that he pays equal attention to the plot and the characterizations. We learn by way of context that, during Hypatia’s studies, the city fell from grace, and that the Roman rulers were replaced by a sect of zealous Christians, who perceived her as a threat to the church.    

In the Cannes Festival press conference, the director acknowledged the challenges involved in achieving a balancing act between the grand epic and the intimate tale, noting, “The problem with epics is that they can seem really big and that they lose the sense of intimacy.”

To be fair, ”Agora” is not always an easy movie to watch.  For one thing, the saga is dialogue-driven, with long intellectual and religious discussions that demand attention.  For another, though visually impressive, the movie lacks the thrilling pictorial set-pieces that we associate with the epic-historical genre.

That said, the relationship between master and a slave is interesting on both personal and socio-political levels. Moreover, whether intentional or not, the movie carries an added significance: the story’s villains bear unmistakable resemblance to those of the Taliban regime, sporting heavy beards and long black robes.
The film benefits from an astoundingly intelligent turn by Rachel Weisz, who has shown depth and gravitas before, as in her Oscar-winning turn in “The Constant Gardener.”  As the legendary philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, Weisz delivers yet another compelling performance.

Cast

Hypatia – Rachel Weisz
Davus – Max Minghella
Oreste – Oscar Isaac
Ammonius – Ashraf Barhom
Synesius – Rupert Evans
Theon – Michael Lonsdale
Aspasius – Homayoun Ershadi
Cyril – Sammy Samir
Olympius – Richard Durden
Isidorus – Omar Mostafa
Medorus – Oshri Cohen
Pierre – Yousef Sweid

 

Credits
An Mod Producciones, Himenoptero and Telecinco Cinema production with the participation of Canal+Espana.
Produced by Fernando Bovaira, Alvaro Augustin.
Executive producers, Simon de Santiago, Jaime Ortiz de Artinano.
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar.
Screenplay, Amenabar, Mateo Gil.
Camera, Xavi Gimenez.
Editor, Nacho Ruiz Capillas.
Music, Dario Marianelli.
Production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas.
Supervising art director, Frank Walsh.
Costume designer, Gabriella Pescucci.
Sound, Peter Glossop; sound designer, Glenn Freemantle.
Visual effects supervisor, Felix Berges; visual effects, El Ranchito Visual Effects.
Special effects supervisor, Chris Reynolds.
Stunt coordinator, Jordi Casares.
Line producer, Jose Luis Escolar.
Assistant director, Javier Chinchilla; second unit director, Gil; second unit camera, Oscar Faura; casting, Jina Jay.
Running time: 140 Minutes.