CANNES, France — Rachel Weisz and director Alejandro Amenabar traveled back to ancient times to tell a modern story about a progressive woman standing against religious dogma and persecution.
Amenabar's historical epic "Agora" premiered Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival, introducing audiences to the little-known scholar Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer and mathematician working in a man's world in 4th century A.D. Egypt.
As the Roman Empire declines, Hypatia struggles to preserve scientific knowledge amid the clash of zealots in Alexandria, whose rising Christian population grows increasingly militant toward Jews and worshippers of the Egyptian gods.
No stranger to ancient Egypt, having starred in the first two installments of "The Mummy" franchise, Weisz had never heard of Hypatia before reading the script, but she said the woman's story resonates today.
"Really, nothing has changed. I mean, we have huge technological advances and medical advances, but in terms of people killing each other in the name of God, fundamentalism still abounds," Weisz said. "And in certain cultures, women are still second-class citizens, and they're denied education."
Amenabar, who also directed the Nicole Kidman ghost story "The Others," said he decided to make a movie about the cosmos after his 2004 drama "The Sea Inside," which won the Academy Award for foreign-language films.
He dove into astronomy research but said he did not want to make a movie about a figure such as Galileo because everyone already knew his story. Amenabar's studies eventually led him to Hypatia, a woman dealing with current issues in ancient times.
"We realized that this particular time in the world had a lot of connections with our contemporary reality," Amenabar said. "Then the project became really, really intriguing, because we realized that we could make a movie about the past while actually making a movie about the present."
Forced to flee the city's library, a storehouse of ancient knowledge and manuscripts, Hypatia rescues a handful of irreplaceable texts from a Christian ransacking and continues her theorizing on the nature of the universe. Christian leaders eventually label her a witch and make her a martyr to scientific reason.
"Agora" _ named for the great square at the city's center _ is far from a dusty treatise, though. A lot of stoning and sword-skewering goes on in "Agora" as Amenabar intersperses Hypatia's philosophical musings with bloodletting in the streets.
The story also creates a love triangle of sorts among Hypatia and her devoted slave (Max Minghella) and one of her students (Oscar Isaac).
Hypatia rebuffs their advances, devoting herself to science. Weisz found inspiration in her own family for the character's chastity. She asked her 85-year-old aunt, a cancer researcher who lived for her work, why she never married or had children.
"She said, `I never believed a man when he said that he would allow me to work as hard as I wanted to,'" Weisz said. "And she said, `So over the years, I just realized that I love my work more than anything, and I don't want anyone to get in the way of it.'"
If Hypatia is the embodiment of a modern woman, ancient Rome is a symbol of a modern superpower at a turning point, Amenabar said.
"I think now the United States is the Roman Empire, and we can tell now more than ever that we are in some kind of crisis. Social crisis, economical crisis. So this is time for change," Amenabar said.
"We all can tell that we are going to somewhere else. We don't know exactly what. And since I am an optimist by nature, I don't think we'll go back to something like the Middle Ages, but we can feel that something is not quite fitting right now."
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