Friday, May 28, 2010

Rachel Weisz in Alejandro Amenábar's AGORA: fundamentalism takes it on the chin; a Q&A with the star

What a pleasure it is to take in the visuals and verbi-
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-
nomer, philoso-
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.)  

If Señor Amenábar, shown left, does not track the actual birth of fundamentalism, he takes us back far enough (the "prophet" Muhammad was not yet born!) to understand that the object of the fundamentalist's faith does not matter; it's the faith itself that is so destructive. From the first, when we see Hypatia (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.

Her father, Theon (the sterling 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.

There is plenty going on here but -- surprise! -- the co-writer (with 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.

As a mathematician/astronomer Hypatia's strongest urges are toward understanding the heavens and what is actually going on there, and on earth.  One of the purest joys of the film is watching Ms Weisz struggle to makes sense and then go beyond the little that was known in the 4th Century A.D.   The actress makes all this live and become vitally important.  Minghella and Issac both demon-
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.

You may fault Amenábar for splitting his film into two parts joined by rather lengthy written titles explaining what happens during the missing years. But this is a minor infraction when placed against all that he has accomplished.  He captures the spectacle, as well as the intimate moments.  Better, he makes some of those massive, important moments intimate, too.  I doubt we will see a scene as suspenseful and meaningful as the one in which Orestes is called upon to declaim his allegiance to Christianity.  Here, the horror of church becoming state arrives in full force, and it's a humdinger of a scene.

Without undue pushing, the movie again and again calls to mind our modern times: The sacking of the Alexandria library becomes the looting of the Iraqi museums, fundamentalist Christians of old become current Muslims or Jews, the stoning of a woman echoes down the ages and is still going on today. Most telling of all is how organized religion uses politics to maintain its power.  And vice versa.  Toward the film's conclusion Hypatia tells Synesius (a fine 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.

Agora, from 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.

Into the conference room at one of New York City’s largest PR agencies, 42 West, strides the tall, gorgeous and striking Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winning star of Agora – and probably one of the reasons the movie was even able to be made – given that it is an historical (bad box-office) drama (even worse box-office). Surprisingly, in my experience, at least, this is one actress who is better looking off-screen than she is on.

“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:

How difficult is it for an actress of your stature to find intelligent roles in intelligent films. This must mean a lot of reading?

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?

Oh, no! No. You struggle with it. But not by the time we had started filming. The basic thing I had to figure out was that the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa, and that it doesn’t move in a circle but in an ellipse. It took me quite a time to figure out what an ellipse is – a circle without a center. Or perhaps it has two centers. Well, anyway, now it’s getting confusing again (She laughs heartily, and she has a great, deep laugh).

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.

There are basic things that have not changed, that we have not figured out. Is the movie divisive? I don’t think Agora is an anti-Christian movie, but it is an anti-fundamentalist movie. It shows some very beautiful aspects of Christianty: the idea of charity, feeding the poor, blessed are the meek who shall inherit the earth. The pagans were very enlightened and all – yet they thought was cool to have slaves. That’s messed up! Then Christianity came along and had this idea: Everyone is equal, and we are all god’s children. But it happened to show a moment in history that is true, when Christians were also part of a militia. It was a time of violence.

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?

There is some source material, but this was pretty hard-going to read. There are letters between her and Orestes. And also some chronicles, as they are called. But this did not really help me that much with her character. What I decided to do was different – because, what do we really know about Hypatia? We know she was a virgin, that she was killed by Christian fundamentalists, we know that she had both pagan and Christians in her class, and that she did not discriminate between the two. She was completely tolerant of religions, that she was born a pagan but that that she did not really practice that religion. My job is to make her flesh and blood, make sure there is blood in her veins. The way I got into it was, even though I was little scared by all the science,  I thought: Now, I am really passionate about my job – acting – so if I could have that same kind of passion for the stars, as I do for acting, then maybe she will be a warm, alive person. So I just wanted to make her warm. Otherwise she would have just been a… brain.

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.

Well, yes: Right now, even to get a drama made for under $20 million and starring a woman, this is extremely hard to do. Because of the budget and because it is drama.  Drama has become a dirty word in the film industry.  That’s the climate right now.

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?

Not really.

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.

What are you working on next?

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?

We lived in a wonderful little seaside village, a fishing village. We rented a house there and the whole family was there. The village had not changed that much since the middle ages, I think, in terms of the geopgrpahy of it. The fisherman come in every day with their boats, and we would watch then every morning. It was very idyllic. The roads are very dangerous, though, and they drive like crazy there. It a real fishing culture, with great fish restaurants. It’s a beautiful, big holiday destination for a lot of Brits. I think the Queen actually goes there – if that makes anyone else want to go….

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.
All photos, save that of Ms Weisz in white sweater 
at the top of the interview portion are from Agora
courtesy of Newmarket Films.


Tim O'Neill said...

It's a decent enough movie, but you seem to have swallowed its distortions of history. See for details of how the director/writer twisted things to suit his agenda.

TrustMovies said...

Hey, Tim--
Thanks for turning me on to Armarium Magnum. I did read your thoughts on the film, and found them extremely interesting, coherent and worth reading. However, I think you are exaggerating Amenábar's missteps somewhat. While the director/co-writer does invent, his inventions seem to me not that far afield from the truth. They add to his points but do not distort the truth all that much.

Were Christians not responsible for Hypathia' death? That is the main point, I believe. And Christians are not presented as totally unworthy. Synesius, in particular, gains much of our sympathy. Amenábar's point, I believe, is that groundless, baseless faith, under whatever umbrella it comes (Jews, Christians, pagans) is the problem. In most movies, when one is VERY aware of the history (as here) or job description on view (as in films about everything from lawyers to newspapermen to forensic teams), it is quite easy to pick apart the specifics if your have a real knowledge of the facts. Sometime these specifics work completely against the point of the movie. But in this case, I believe they do not.

Amenábar could have perhaps chosen or invented a little closer to the facts, but he is, in most important ways, not going against them. In any case, I am very happy to know about your site. I will bookmark it and check in from time to time. As a reprobate atheist, I need to occasionally peruse the dark side. (Just kidding. Well, sort of...)
Very best,
--Jim v.

Tim O'Neill said...

Were Christians not responsible for Hypathia' death? That is the main point, I believe.

Members of a rival political faction headed by a Christian were responsible for her murder. And she was targeted because she supported another political faction headed by a Christian. Religion had nothing to do with it. Her murder was revenge for the killing of a member of Cyril's faction - nothing more. Yet this movie does everything it can to give the impression that her murder was due to religion or her learning. This is not found in the actual sources. Socrates Scholasticus specifically attributes her murder to "political jealousy". We can't just ignore the contemporary sources and make up our own story.

TrustMovies said...

I take your point, Tim, but I also don't think it makes much sense because it sounds an awfully lot like an unhealthy mix of religion and politics to me. "She was targeted because she supported another political faction headed by a Christian." You are saying that there were different Christian political factions back then? Sort of like the Shiites and the Sunis in present-day Iraq? For many of us, this is yet one more reason why politics (necessary) and religion (not) should never be allowed to mix because this leads to craziness when faith is placed above everything else. Sounds like the film's director took some easy outs, but his points remain valid. Whether she died because of waring Christian sects or waring Christians/Jews/Pagans, death is still death.

Tim O'Neill said...

You are saying that there were different Christian political factions back then? Sort of like the Shiites and the Sunis in present-day Iraq?

Not, that's not what I'm saying at all. If the leader of Hypatia's faction had been a pagan then we would be justified in suspecting the conflict was religious. But he was a Christian. And Scholasticus also tells us what the conflict was over - political supremacy. Religion had nothing to do with it.

but his points remain valid. Whether she died because of waring Christian sects or waring Christians/Jews/Pagans, death is still death.

He just didn't bother to depict what her death was really about and chose to make it about religious fanatics killing a rationalist over religion. This is not what happened.

TrustMovies said...

"The conflict was over political supremacy. Religion had nothing to do with it."

Yes, but mostly no. It was, back then, as it is now, all about power. And religion, then as now, has been used as a means to gain that power ("I'm right because god is on my side!") So call it politics. Or power. Or even religion, if you or I must, but whether it is the Shiites and Sunnis or (to use a Christian example) the Catholics and Protestants of Martin Luther's day, or the Hasidim and the Reform Jews in present-day Israel, religion is the route that politicians of many stripes take as they head for control.

I am not saying here that there is no one alive who actually believes in religion and might prefer to keep his faith to himself and not force it on others. But unfortunately these people are in the great minority and it is the power-hungry, down through history, whom we see in control. And they use religion to do this because -- hey -- who would want to displease that big guy in the sky.

While the director could have stuck to the more historical divisions between the Christian sects/power groups, this would have meant making the movie even longer and more explanatory. So he took, as most movie-makers do, a shortcut. It's less factually correct, but in the big picture, I think his point remains on target. And he made that point in one of the strongest ways I have seen on film in quite some time. Against fundamentalist thinking and behaving (via stones).