age of AGORA, Chilean-born Spanish filmma-
ker Alejandro Amenábar's new film -- and his best yet. The time is past due for an intelligent broadside against religious fundamentalism, and showing us this story of Hypatia -- the 4th Century Alexandrian woman who was a teacher, astro-
pher, mathematician and humanist -- proves a wonderful, enriching way to provide it. As soon as someone, anyone, decided to put his faith in the world's first and biggest "imaginary friend," and then started recruiting others to join the club, this stubborn, entrenched faith was born which, in the words of Richard Dawkins, "defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence." (Call it Jewish, Islamic or -- in the case of the bad boys of Agora -- Christian fundamentalism.)
Rachel Weisz, a shoo-in for Best Actress nominations at awards time) in her open-forum classroom, from where, I suspect, the film's title comes, it is clear that this is not your everyday, 4th-Century woman. She's bright, and better yet, has the ability to reach her students and get them to think and reason. Alexandria of this time was full of pagans, Christians and Jews, all jockeying for position, but Hypatia allows all of them into her class, refusing to countenance divisions where learning is concerned.
Michael Lonsdale, shown above, left, with Ms Weisz), is the head of the city's famed library, and in their household they keep (as did all the upper classes) slaves, one of whom, Davus (Max Minghella, below), though a pagan, begins to flirt with this new Christianity -- particularly when Theon beats him for confessing to the ownership of a religious cross (Davus is actually protecting another female slave). Also in the mix is Orestes (Oscar Issac), one of Hypatia's students who is in love with her. As is, we soon learn, the slave Davus.
Mateo Gil) and director handles it all quite differently from what we are usually fed. Instead of the sex 'n sin of the standard historical epic, we get abstention, along with reasoned, intelligent dialog from the participants. Oh, there's plenty of massive crowd scenes; violence, too, when necessary (no undue blood and guts, however, though there is some menstrual blood, also handled in a manner to make you sit up and take notice). But the big scenes take their place against many small, intimate moments with, again, unexpected results. Amenábar also finds marvelous opportunities to use the circle -- the movie's single strongest visual motif -- in ways that are lovely, rich and sad.
strate their skill in showing their characters trying to understand their own passions and how to deal with them. All this makes for the kind of epic movie we rarely -- maybe never -- have seen.
Rupert Evans), one of her favored students who has become a Christian power broker who genuinely believes in Christ Jesus, "You have to believe in your faith; I have to question." Doubt and questioning keep individuals on their toes and societies healthy. Unlike the one we see in this film. Or the one we're living in presently.
Newmarket Films, opens today, May 28, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine and Paris cinemas. On June 4, it will make its west coast debut in Los Angeles at The Landmark and in Irvine at the Regal Westpark 8.
Addendum to this post: Because of the above review, TrustMovies recently received in the mail an interesting, large-print, paperback book -- WOMEN ASTRONOMERS: REACHING FOR THE STARS -- that covers not only ancient women astronomers such as Hypatia -- but plenty of modern ones, too. The author is Mabel Armstrong, and the book (ISBN # 978-0-9728929-5-7), published by Stone Pine Press, retails for $16.95. In 180 pages, 21 different women (plus those in this latest generation), are covered briefly, with their major contributions to the science discussed -- with sidebars on topics from Cepheid variables and stellar distances to optical telescopes. Written in accessible language, the book give a kind of overview of astronomy -- where it has come from and where it is going -- as well as a interesting profile of some women of whom many of us may never have heard. Complete with index, references and a five-page glossary at the conclusion that gives a quick a definition of some terms the lay person might want to know, the book should please anyone seeking out women in the science of astronomy (it's actually part of the Discovering Women in Sciences Series) and/or beginners in astronomy.
“Don’t stand up!” she insists, as I do just that, and then she proceeds to very graciously apologize for arriving tardily. As we do not have that much time to spend, our roundtable of bloggers gets right to it. Our questions below appear in bold and Ms Weisz’s answers in standard type:
A lot of reading? Ahhh… Umm… Yeah, I do a lot of reading. Yeah: That is probably the simplest way to answer it. A lot of reading. But I think everyone does a lot reading. Yeah --you have to read lots and lots and lots of things. A script might be intelligent but if it doesn’t grab you... It’s all about something that just grabs you.
And this one did grab you?
Yes, it just did. It had a lot to do with who was directing it. And the fact that it was a true story. It just seemed very challenging. And I like things that are kind of challenging. And difficult. And scary. It’s more fun than always doing things in your comfort zone. I am really bad at science. I should say that. I failed all my exams – my O-levels, we call them in England -- when I was 16. I failed math, physics, chemistry, biology, all of them. I mean, I am terrible. So that was a major challenge for me, to sound like I knew what I was talking about.
So this role wasn’t in your comfort zone?
I understand that Sacha Baron Cohen turned down a role in the film because apparently he found the subject matter too prickly. That was the quote he used. I was wondering: Were you attracted to the subject matter of the film? Because it is sort of divisive material.
He said ‘prickly’? I think it was due to religious reasons, as well.
Did the subject matter attract you?
What interested me when I first read it was that I felt like it was a movie about today. It is a contemporary movie -- even if it is set in the 4th Century Egypt. We can go to the moon and we have cars and stuff, yet we are still killing each other in the name of religion, and fundamentalist still exists. Right now, I would say that Islamic fundamentalists are probably the stronger, more violent force, but at that time, it was Christian fundamentalists. But people are still killing each other in the name of religion all over the planet. There are places in the middle east where women are not allowed to be educated. Here in America, there are issues -- we are teaching evolutionary theory vs Christian fundamentalism? So what struck me was Whoa—this is so contemporary.
Which is a little scary about how we live now…
What do you mean?
Well, you wonder sometimes if we are going to have Christian militias in this country.
There already are.
You mean libertarians with guns?
No, no, There was a Christian militia group who claimed they were going to shoot the police.
Well, there you go: Write about that! (Another hearty laugh.)
You are playing an ancient historical figure: What surprised you most about doing a movie like this, and this particular character and what you discovered about her as a person?
Did you get a chance to go to Alexandria?
No. They filmed this in Malta and built the whole set there.
Did the film make you more interested in the culture and time and place of Egypt back them. Having done this film -- and the two Mummy movies?
As an actor, you deeply immerse yourselves in whatever you are currently doing, and you learn a lot about it. But your brain -- I think it doesn’t have that much storage space, because then you move onto the next project.
We did have an historical adviser Justin Pollard. He wrote a book about Alexandria, which I read. It’s very vivid about what life would have been like at that time.
This is like a multimillion dollar production, with an Oscar-winning actress and director attached. Yet it had some trouble finding distribution after Cannes, and I wonder why you think that was.
Ironically, now the film is being distributed by the same company that released The Passion of the Christ.
Oh, yeah—that’s right!
Hypatia was highly unusual in her society. What do you think might have been some of the advantages of being a woman during this time.
The only thing I can really think of is that you did not have to go to war. Apart from that I am not sure how great it was to be a woman. I mean, she was an aristocrat so she probably had those advantages. I can’t think of any others. Can you?
I think it was much better in Alexandria then. Up until the beginning of Christian fundamentalism, that really put women back into… well, I don’t know where they got put back into. It’s like the beginning of the Dark Ages, I suppose. Hypatia was not the only woman teacher at the time There were other female teachers. If she had married, though, her husband would have been able to stop her from working.
What do you think, as a respected actor in the industry, what are some of the things you are fighting for?
I don’t really feel I am in a battle -- or experience this as a battle. You just have to find roles that are interesting to you. The only thing that gets harder: the more successful you become, the more choices you have. It's the luxury of success. But it is much easier when you start out, because you need to pay the rent so you take anything you can get. It’s about learning how to make choices. I think that’s what a career is – once you have success. It’s all about choices. It’s a lovely luxury, but that’s the only thing I struggle with.
Well after this film I did a play, and then another film from a first-time/full-length director, Larysa Kondracki about a cop from Nebraska who went to Sarajevo in the 1990s as part of the UN peace-keeping force. And there she uncovered a huge sex trafficking scandal -- which she blew the whistle on. The movie is called The Whistleblower.
Why do you think that Hypathia never connected sexually with Orestes – who was pretty persuasive.
Yeah, yeah! He was great, but Alejandro felt very strongly that her passion was for her work and she did not have the time or place or inclination to take a lover.
What was Malta like—since you did not have the chance to get to Egypt?
In order to make his next screening, TrustMovies had to leave. But before exiting, he asked Ms Weisz one last question about the pronunciation of her name: "Is it Weisz with a W sound or a V?"
“Most definitely, it’s a V!” she told him with a big, beautiful grin. Ah... This is one impressive woman.