Rachel Weisz and ‘Agora': a modern story set in the 4th century

Rachel Weisz is blunt about the subject of her character in “Agora,” which opens in Minnesota this weekend.

“I had never heard of this Hypatia, this 4th century philosopher,” she says. “I must have missed that day in school. So when I read the script it was news to me that she had ever existed.”

“Agora” is Spanish director Alejandro (“The Sea Inside,” “The Others” Amenábar’s epic story of the clash between religion and science in Alexandria in Egypt. It’s set at the time the Roman Empire was in decline and Christianity was taking hold as a major religion.

Weisz (pronounced VICE “Like the opposite of virtue,” she jokes) who has delighted audiences in an array of movies ranging from “The Mummy” franchise, through “The Brothers Bloom” and “The Constant Gardener” (which netted her a best supporting actress Oscar) to Wong Kar-wai’s “My Blueberry Nights.”

In “Agora” she plays Hypatia, a philosopher who is fascinated by the movement of the planets. She works at Alexandria’s famed library, teaching the sons of the city elite, who in time will rule. It’s a true story about a unique woman at a pivotal moment in history.

“As well as being a philosopher she was a magical teacher,” Weisz says. “I had one very magical teacher when I was at school who really inspired me. I think there are not many films about magical teachers – or not enough.”

Not surprisingly several of Hypatia’s students have crushes on her, although as Weisz points out for Hypatia knowledge trumps everything.

“She’s not interested in love and she is very passionate about her work. Meanwhile she lives at this time which is at the end of the age of enlightenment and the beginning of I guess what we call the dark ages, which was the rise of Christian fundamentalism.”

Hypatia’s story spins out over several years as she continues working even as the Parabolani, a hardcore Christian militia becomes the defacto power in the streets under the command of the Archbishop Cyril.

Anyone who opposes them risks being denounced and physically attacked. In time the Parabolani set their sights on the most senior Roman in Alexandria, the Prefect, who has converted to Christianity, but has not bowed to their rising influence. Weisz says this larger conflict leaves Hypatia increasingly vulnerable

“So she lives at this extraordinary moment in history, so you see through her story how attitudes to a woman who is a pagan, who won’t convert to Christianity, and who is also looking at the stars, and basically they thought she was a witch.”

Outside the Alexandria Library (Images courtesy Newmarket Films)

The role of Hypatia brought a number of challenges. Not only does Weisz have to present what is a very intimate story of an individual in turbulent times, she also has to do this within with director Amenábar’s huge cinematic vision, which includes spinning the audience out into space to look back on the tiny individuals shaping the philosophical future of western civilization.

“I guess I was just up for the challenge,” she laughs.

And as the central character Weisz really does have to carry the whole film – a task in which she delighted.

“It’s really fun to carry a film. It’s really fun. It’s exhilarating. It’s terrifying as well. I once worked with Dustin Hoffman and I asked him, ‘Does it get any less scary?’ And he goes, ‘No. Every time I do a job I’m terrified.’ And you need that. You need the fear to fuel the energy to do it. But it’s delicious fear.”

Part of Weisz’s interest in the project is how the story is centuries old, it has a very modern ring about a culture clash.

“As soon as I finished reading it, I closed the script and I thought ‘Oh, my goodness, this is a contemporary story, set in the 4th century. Because really, obviously, what it’s about is how little has changed.”

“It’s really about how in a way, we can go to the moon and we’ve got antibiotics, and freedom of speech most places, but there’s a lot that really hasn’t changed. Religious tolerance is one of them.”

She says she knew she wanted to make the film as soon as she read the script, particularly because she has long wanted to work with Alejandro Amenábar. She admits though there’s no guarantees of success in moviemaking.

“Making a movie is alchemy. You can have a great script, great director, great actors and the movie can completely suck. There’s no recipe for a movie, which is why it’s so interesting.”

Released in Europe last year “Agora” has done well, winning critical praise and a ton of awards. The new challenge is now America, and Weisz admits she has no idea how it will play here.

“What do you think?” she asks.

It’s a question which Hypatia would ask, but only time and the box office will answer.

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