A sword-and-sandals epic about the Romans and Christians in ancient Egypt, directed by a Spanish filmmaker of Chilean origin, hardly sounds like a recipe for box-office success.
Yet Alejandro Amenábar's Agora has achieved two remarkable feats in Spain: By ringing up €7 million ($A11.4 million) in its first four days, the English-language drama starring Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella is already the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year in its home market as well as notching the biggest debut of any film there in 2009.
The Chilean-born director's first effort since his Oscar-winning The Sea Inside five years ago, it will need to perform strongly internationally to have a chance of recouping its €50 million ($A81.4 million) budget.
Weisz stars as Hypatia, the Alexandrian astronomer, philosopher and mathematician, who was brutally killed by an angry Christian mob. Minghella plays her slave Davus, who competes for her affections with one of her students, the privileged Orestes (Oscar Isaac). Davus remains loyal to her although he could win his freedom if he joined the Christians.
There are modern parallels. “It's set in the 4th century, but when I read it, what struck me is that nothing has changed,” Weisz said at the film's press conference at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “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.”
At its premiere at Cannes, Amenábar declared his aim was to “make the audience feel like they're following a CNN team documenting something that happened in the 4th century.”
Audiences in Cannes gave the film a rapturous reception, while the reviews were decidedly mixed. Variety hailed it as a “visually imposing, high-minded epic that ambitiously puts one of the pivotal moments in Western history onscreen for the first time.”
The Los Angeles Times described it as a “fascinating film, crammed with both stirring visual images and intellectual ideas.”
IndieWire was unimpressed, opining the director “clearly aimed to make an old school epic of Cecil B. De Mille proportions, and ended up with a hollow reflection of one. There's too much forceful expression applied to scenes that don't require it… The religious battles suffer from incredulous and half-baked exchanges.”
The director rejected the notion his film is anti-Christian, stressing that it explores positive aspects of the religion such as working with lepers and the poor. “This movie is against fundamentalism, the idea that 'I will kill you for what you think,'” he said. “I was brought up Christian, then I was agnostic and then I realized I was atheist. This movie is about fundamentalism and hate.”
There's no theatrical date yet in Australia, but Agora is listed on a DVD database.