by Camillo de Marco
17/05/2009 - Just what would possess a European auteur filmmaker to take on a blockbuster, particularly that half-action, half-fantasy subgenre known as "Sword and Sandal" , which draws on either the Bible or Ancient Greece and Rome, dipping into history and mythology indistinctly, and leaving the auteur wide open to criticism over historical inaccuracy and ridicule over stylistic lapses?
The question doesn’t fazeAlejandro Amenábar, the Oscar-winning director of the intimist The Sea Inside [trailer], who replies that his film Agora [trailer] , which cost almost 50 million euros to make and is screening at the Cannes Festival out of competition, has one goal : « To make the audience feel like they’re following a CNN team documenting something that happened in the 4th century ".
With a hankering to bring a story about Romans and Christians in Ancient Egypt to the screen, the Spanish filmmaker of Chilean origin found his heroine in the person of Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, the last director of the glorious Library of Alexandria, a woman who symbolised the tolerance for which Greco-Roman society was then known. With his Himenóptero, Amenábar got both the recently-created Mod Producciones and Telecinco Cinemainvolved, and assembled an international cast acting in English, for a launch aimed at the global market.
Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener, The Mummy). We meet her teaching her students astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy in that temple of wisdom that the Library of Alexandria surely was in its heyday. However, while inside that ivory tower the talk was of Aristotle and heliocentricity, outside in the streets and squares of the city ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire, long-simmering religious tensions between Christians, pagans, and Jews were coming to a boil. Soon the hooded Parabolani were goading the mob to attack the heathens in God’s name, and despite the mediation of Rome itself, the Library was sacked and burned to the ground.
And the rest is history, with the sole exception of the slave Davus, a character invented ad hoc and played by the young British actor Max Minghella. While audiences may well find the « scientific » discussions tedious and pseudo-intellectual, what strikes home is the bold decision to bring this pagan martyr to the big screen, in what has all the appearances of being a head-on attack by the director on Christianity and not just religious fanaticism in its generic form. When Agora comes out, the Vatican is highly unlikely to look kindly upon the scenes in which Christians disembowel anyone who crosses their path, shrieking as if possessed, or the ones in which they are shown as black ants swarming over their prey, in a remarkably effective speeded-up high angle shot.
So forget Gladiator, Troy , and let sleeping Ben Hur’s lie. Ron Howard’s Angeli e Demoni has just hit the theatres, and here in Cannes, after the vampire-cum-Catholic priest who is anything but chaste in Park Chan-wook’s flick, dazed but undaunted we can hardly wait for Antichrist [trailer, film focus] devilishly directed by Lars von Trier...
(Translated from Italian)