"Once we started researching, we realized there was a relation with today's reality," said Chilean-born Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar in Cannes yesterday. "We were excited to have a story about the past that has relevance to the present." Amenarbar's out of competition epic "Agora," is an indictment of fundamentalism and intolerance of opposing beliefs and on Sunday here in Cannes the filmmaker defended his exploration.
Set in 4th century Alexandria in Egypt, during the onset of decadence in the Roman Empire, Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardener") portrays the legendary Hypatia, who devoted herself to science, the search for truth and tolerance. Two men are competing for her heart, the privileged Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Davus (Max Minghella), her slave. Davus remains with Hypatia, despite the fact his freedom could be won if he joined the unstoppable surge of the Christians and the religious violence in the streets of the city, which have also spilled into Alexandria's famous library.
"It's set in the 4th century, but when I read it, what struck me is that nothing has changed," Weisz said Sunday about the film, which seemed to receive a rather lukewarm reception from critics here. "People still kill each other in the name of God. Fundamentalism still abounds, and in many countries in [that region] women are second-class citizens."
Amenabar, who won a best foreign language Oscar for "The Sea Inside," was quick to say his film was not "anti-Christian" but instead a condemnation of any fundamentalism. "You could interpret the film as anti-Christian, but I think it's actually 'Christian.' I explore the [good] side of Christianity, working with lepers and the poor - the humanity of it. But this movie is against fundamentalism, the idea that 'I will kill you for what you think'." Though the crusaders in this film are actually Christian, Amenabar - who when pushed during the conversation Sunday said he was personally an atheist - said he had no particular present group in mind when making "Agora."
Despite his personal beliefs, Amenabar took strains at the end of the press conference in Cannes to emphasize that the film was not against religion, inerrupting the moderator who was trying to close the conversation saying, "I just want to say one last thing. "I was brought up Christian, then I was agnostic and then I realized I was atheist. But we have actors [in 'Agora'] who are Christian. This movie is about fundamentalism and hate."