At Cannes: Alejandro Amenabar's provocative new historical thriller
When Alejandro Amenabar took time off after finishing his last film, "The Sea Inside," he headed off to a remote island and went stargazing. His newfound interest in the stars prompted a study of astronomy, which in turn led the Spanish filmmaker to investigate the lives of a number of great minds in the field, from Galileo to Kepler to Copernicus to Ptolemy. But the historical character who really stuck with him was a woman -- Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria during the 4th century AD, in the waning days of the Roman Empire. The daughter of Theron, the last director of the famed Library of Alexandria, she was not only a brilliant theorist in astronomy, but a mathematician and philosopher.
As much as Amenabar was intrigued by her intellectual pursuits, he was also fascinated by her fate -- and its parallels to today. While she studied the mysteries of the universe, her beloved city fell from grace, its Roman rulers replaced by a once-persecuted sect of Christians who quickly became vengeful persecutors and zealots themselves. Viewed as a threat to the church (like Galileo centuries later), Hypatia runs afoul of an angry Christian mob.
It's the story of Hypatia, who is played by Rachel Weisz, that Amenabar tells in "Agora," a provocative historical epic that premieres today in Cannes, where its North American rights are up for acquisition. It's a fascinating film, crammed with both stirring visual images and intellectual ideas. The film is at its most compelling when Amenabar shows the once-stable civilization of Alexandria being overwhelmed by fanaticism, perhaps because the bearded, black-robe clad Christian zealots who sack the library and take over the city bear an uncanny resemblance to the ayatollahs and Taliban of today.
When Amenabar and I spoke on the phone on Friday -- he was still in Madrid, preparing to leave for Cannes -- I asked him if the similarities were by chance or by design. He laughed, "I guess I should ask Gabriella Pescucci [his costume designer] if she did that on purpose. But yes, the movie is definitely a condemnation of fundamentalism. It's about the moment in history when the Christians were finished being persecuted and began to persecute others. The costumes are very true to the period, but I realize that the robes and beards look very much like the Taliban."
Even though the film is set in a sword-and-sandal era, it has a more modern air to it, perhaps because Amenabar felt the images should have a sense of immediacy. "I tried to think of what it would've been like to have been a CNN news crew who had traveled in time, back to the 4th century AD. I wanted to inhale the atmosphere of Alexandria, the competing factions and all the tumult and violence. So the way we would place the camera would be like a TV crew shooting a violent mob scene for real. I wanted what happened 1,600 years ago to feel just as real -- and more importantly, just as cruel -- as if it were today."
In many ways, Hypatia is a dream role for an actress, since she is one of the rare female historical characters who isn't defined in any way by her relationships with powerful men. In Amenabar's version of her story, which sticks close to the historical record, Hypatia has no husband or lover -- her passion is for ideas, not for men. College educated, with a degree in literature from Cambridge University, Weisz had the intellectual heft to play the part. But as Amenabar admits, she had second thoughts about playing a woman who never falls in love during her life.
How did Amenabar persuade her to stay with the film? Keep reading:
"Rachel had accepted the part, but then she grew worried about that solitude, so she called me one day to talk," Amenabar recalls. "I told her, 'Remember, I'm not offering you the part of the scientist's wife. You are the scientist. And you are very much in love -- you're just in love with the sky.' "
In an era where the pace of festival film acquisitions has slowed to a crawl, "Agora" has a lot riding on its reception in Cannes. For me, it offers a great example of bravura filmmaking by a gifted young international filmmaker, making his first English-language production.[Whoops--make that his second, after "The Others."] But the film wasn't cheap -- Amenabar says it cost roughly $65 million, bankrolled largely by Telecinco Cinema, the Spanish film company that also backed "Pan's Labyrinth." While historical epics like "Troy," "Australia" and "Alexander" have performed well in the international marketplace, they are increasingly a tough sell for U.S. audiences.
What Amenabar has going for him is his visual imagination. At several points during the film, he takes us swooping up and away from Alexandria, allowing the audience to see the world from high above, as if watching from the cockpit of a satellite orbiting the Earth. I asked him why he chose that perspective. "For me, this wasn't just the story of a woman, but the story of a city -- and a civilization, and a planet -- so I wanted to find a way visually to capture that. When you see things from a distance, you can see how relative things are. The ideas that so inflame people up close, that feel so scary and menacing, they look very different when you see them from a different perspective."
Photo of director Alejandro Amenabar by Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP/Getty Images