Chilean-born Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s movie making career has been, without a doubt, outstanding. Amenábar has made a bigger name for himself with each successive film. His two better known ones in North America are “The Others” (2001) and the incredible “The Sea Inside” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film as well as over 50 other film awards.
This time around Alejandro brings to the Toronto International Film Festival “Agora”. “Agora” tells a unique and not often told story, that of the city of Alexandria and its transition from antiquity to medieval times, personified by the important but nearly forgotten hero of science and reason Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician and astronomer and one of the last defenders of the Library of Alexandria, and her struggle in the face of political and religious dogma. I sat down with Alejandro Amenábar to delve a little deeper into “Agora” and what it means to him
Mikhail : Thank you Alejandro for taking the time to speak to Alternavox. I have some questions in regards to your movie and in particular what I sense to be its focus, what I would call a defense of science. What motivated you to take up this subject at this point in time?
Alejandro: I started getting interested, intensely interested in science about 4 years ago when the promotion tour for “Sea Inside” was wrapping up. Me and my friends had this one particular conversation about the possibility of intelligent life in other planets. Surprising to me, cause I always had the feeling that we must be surrounded by life. My friend asked pointedly “Why should there be life elsewhere?” This led me to start looking more seriously into Astronomy, and in “Cosmos” the series by Carl Sagan he mentions her.
Mikhail: You are right, he mentions her as one of the heroes of science in “Cosmos”!
Alejandro: Yeah! He also calculates in one of the episodes the probability of life beyond ours and this led me to fall in love with Carl Sagan. I have read all his books and he mentions Hypatia in the series, and I started to read about Einstein, Galileo and Keppler. I wanted to make a movie at that time, I thought it be great to translate that world of science that sometimes may seem cold and rational, lacking a spiritual approach. I mean if you read about the theory of relativity it has a lot of an spiritual aspect to it, it was incredible how these people were discussing the origins of the universe at these meetings. So my focus was to try to see science and astronomy from an spiritual point of view. Then we decided to tell the story of Hypatia. We found her to be the most perfect choice, because there was no movie about her, she is an almost forgotten character nowadays. She was a woman also.
Mikhail: In that time and place do you think she may be somewhat forgotten because she was such a free thinking woman at that time when women were not expected to be so outspoken?
Alejandro: Yeah, its probably because its something you can see still in this day in some places, but also because right after this period came the middle ages, in which women were totally secluded and isolated from society, but even in that time when women had more access to learning, she was a still a unique and special character. We wanted to show that, she must have fought very hard at the time to get where she got, she become the most important philosopher in her city, she died a virgin, never married and it seems to me her true focus was her intellectual pursuit.
Mikhail: I got the feeling while watching the movie that you may be suggesting that the times have not changed that much, in particular when it comes to religious dogma, would it be fair to say that you are juxtaposing one situation in ancient times with more current ones, for example current debates like evolution versus creationism? Would you then say this movie is an appeal and a defense of reason?
Alejandro:Yes it is, of course. But also because once I realize I was gonna make a movie about the past, I like to be there. It’s happened with all my movies really, I need to go to the place and this time I wanted to take that trip to Alexandria, that trip in time. So once I try to feel there, I realize that all those characters all those stories relate to thing that are happening to me, for example what if I had been a slave? how would I have felt? or what position would I take if the times were that radical? would I kill just anyone who got in my way? Its really inevitably a reflection of ourselves even now.
Mikhail: So you bring issues of not only religious but also class, status and the whole social structure which could be reflected on what we see in this day and age. One particular question I have, and it has to do with your choice of Rachel Weisz to play the lead character. My suspicion is that you picked her because she is able to play really strong characters, someone that can play a gentle side, but never weak one and strong when it most matters. I was wondering if that was your criteria for choosing her for the role.
Alejandro: Well I admire her as an actor, I have been looking at her work for a while now and I think she is an incredible actor, and she is also very beautiful. But she also has a degree, something I never had, that meant to me that she would be willing to get into her mind and give her the proper intellectual angle and approach, and wouldn’t be afraid of becoming a scientist and get interested in Astronomy. She is a very passionate woman who was able put all that passion in the study of the character. Also to me, and this is something I found out after, she is very honest, this is a woman, the character, that does not betray her ideas.
Mikhail: It comes across that way doesn’t it? She seems almost unable to tell you a lie.
Alejandro: Exactly, I think this happens with Rachel as well, she is very very straighforward!
Mikhail: I also think it shows in some of her other roles, that sincerity. Now let me give you a different angle, what are you hoping this movie accomplishes, what would you consider the ideal scenario for it?
Alejandro: Ummm I don’t know…When I first started making pictures I really was trying to make a life for myself and pay my rent. Now movies are about being able to express myself, and I can say this is my most ambitious movie, not just because of the budget but because of the subject matters. This movie talks about our planet, our civilization; “Agora” is our planet, its this place where we all have to meet and where hopefully a more developed species will have to live together.
Mikhail: One last question. There seems to me that throughout your films you want to see human beings put in extreme situations but you handle them from a very humanistic perspective, is that something you set yourself to do with each of your films?
Alejandro: It’s just part of my life, I try to see things on a humanistic level and I follow a very simple principle: I try to treat others how I want to be treated myself. That is the way my characters work in the movies. Also like you said, it is a movie that defends rationality as a way to behave. I don’t like to think of reason as something cold and detached and pure and away from moral. In fact I think morals come from reason.