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AGORA – Dario Marianelli

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Agora is a historical epic set in Roman Egypt at the very end of the classical antiquity period. It’s a story about religion, philosophy, the clash between modern civilization and ancient belief, and the life of Hypatia, a pagan mathematician and astronomer who is considered to be one of the first women in history to be held in such esteem, and who embarks on an illicit romance with her slave Davus, who is himself in a quandary: if he converts to Christianity he may gain his freedom, but in doing so will lose the woman he loves. The Agora of the title refers to the central square in the city of Alexandria where the film is set, and where Hypatia was murdered in the year 415 by a mob of newly-converted Christians, who felt she was responsible for the political and religious unrest plaguing their city. The film is directed by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, Max Minghella (son of director Anthony) as Davus, and features a new original score by Italian composer Dario Marianelli.

After winning the Oscar for Best Original Score for Atonement in 2007, Marianelli fell foul of that curse which seems to befall a large majority of Oscar-winning composers: he virtually disappeared for a year. Thankfully, Agora sees him returning to the mainstream with a score of great scope, power and creativity that could very well be the best score of his career to date. Although Marianelli has scored films of an epic nature before – V for Vendetta, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement spring to mind – this is the first time Marianelli has been given the opportunity to include large-scale ethnic and choral work of this kind of magnitude into his orchestral palette. The resulting score is a huge, dramatic, weighty epic that plays like a combination of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator, Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus, and Gabriel Yared’s rejected score for Troy, all filtered through Marianelli’s increasingly impressive compositional sensibility.

The score oscillates between moments of spiritual reflection, often achieved through the use of traditional ethnic vocals, and moments of great grandeur that are remarkable in their sense of orchestral power. Although people often decry the dreaded ‘ethnic wailing’ as a cliché in modern film music, one cannot deny its effectiveness at establishing a location-specific mood, or its lamenting sense of rich spirituality. In Agora, cues such as the opening “Have You Ever Asked Yourselves?” and “Alexandria” adopt this mood, and when the vocals combine with Marianelli’s moody string lines, subtle tinkling percussion and haunting ney flutes, the effect is subtly intoxicating. Similarly, the unique “Orestes’ Offering” – a piece written for an array of ethnic woodwinds and nothing else – is almost like glimpse into a musical past of a long-dead civilization, a haunting and soulful tribute to their gods.

The score’s main thematic element – a short, somewhat downbeat descending motif for strings, often accompanied by delicate harp waves and the soft, hooting ethnic woodwinds – is first heard during the opening moments of “The Miracle of the Bread”, and is vaguely reminiscent of the more romantic parts of James Horner’s score for Braveheart. It seems to have a tragic quality to it, as though foreshadowing the doomed love affair between Hypatia and Davus, that is very appealing, and its appearances in later cues such as the gorgeous “The Rule of the Parabolani” and “If I Could Just Unravel This” are amongst the score’s emotional highlights. The heavenly “Aristarchus the Visionary” is another emotional high point for the score, in which Marianelli’s fluid string writing combines with beautiful, angelic choral work to superb effect, while “A Boat Experiment” introduces a tender, more intimate theme for choir and harp that builds to an orchestral finale which is quite sublime.

However, as the score progresses, it becomes definitely darker, especially through Marianelli’s increased use of progressively more brutal brass writing. “An Insult to the Gods” is a mysterious, menacing piece that reaches a quite cacophonous finale with horns and voices crying in unison. The magnificent “What Do the Skies See?” can almost be taken as a theological battle of choirs, with the solo female vocalist competing with a massed male choir chanting in Latin, cleverly mirroring the rising tide of Roman-led Christianity threatening to overwhelm the pagan beliefs of the Alexandrians. As the cue progresses, the orchestra takes over, with overwhelmingly portentous brass chords dominating the proceedings, until the Latin choir finally emerges victorious.

Later, the truly breathtaking “Two Hundred Thousand Books” takes the choral and string writing and piles on layers of emotion, building to a wonderful crescendo of great thematic strength, while “As Christian As You Are” revisits the brooding choral ‘Christianity theme’; admirers of the massive choral style Elliot Goldenthal adopted in Titus, or even Howard Shore’s choral writing from Lord of the Rings, will find a great deal of enjoyment in this latter cue especially, as Marianelli’s writing mirrors the intensity and overall stylistics of those masterpieces.

There are some gorgeous textures in Marianelli’s orchestral palette throughout the score too, not just in the brass writing or the ethnic and choral elements, but the way in which harps, high pitched woodwinds, and cellos often make fleeting appearances at the forefront of the mix. Marianelli has always had a knack for introducing interesting orchestral nuances into his scores, but Agora really shines in this regard.

The score’s finale – from “The Truth is Elliptical” through to the stunning “The Skies Do Not Fall” – is some of the best music of Marianelli’s career to date, running the gamut of emotions from overwhelmingly tragic to vividly romantic, and re-states the majority of the score’s recurring thematic and instrumental elements, giving the score a sense of appropriate conclusiveness. “Hypatia’s Last Walk” – presumably the cue which underscores the moments immediately prior to her murder – uses the ethnic vocalist as a lamenting figure that is tremendously evocative, giving weight and emotional resonance to her fate, while the opening moments of “The Skies Do Not Fall” begin with some almost renaissance-esque string combinations for cello and violin, before building to an impressive finish.

Contrary to expectations, 2009 is turning into an impressive year for film music, and Agora is another one of those unheralded scores which crept up out of nowhere and could very well go on to be regarded as one of the best of the year. If you have an aversion to ‘wailing women’ in your film music, or dislike overly Middle Eastern influences, then Agora might not be the score for you, as both elements feature prominently throughout. However, I personally found the combination of these elements, a strong orchestral presence, and impassioned emotions to be quite excellent, and well worth exploring.

Rating: ****½

Buy the Agora soundtrack from Screen Archives (it is not available through the Movie Music UK store)

Track Listing:

  • Have You Ever Asked Yourselves? (2:51)
  • Alexandra (2:07)
  • The Miracle of the Bread (4:22)
  • Thinking Aloud (2:25)
  • Orestes’ Offering (2:00)
  • An Insult to the Gods (1:04)
  • What Do the Skies See? (4:37)
  • Aristarchus the Visionary (3:04)
  • The Library Falls (2:39)
  • Two Hundred Thousand Books (6:06)
  • The Rule of the Parabolani (2:02)
  • A Boat Experiment (3:57)
  • If I Could Just Unravel This (2:59)
  • As Christian As You Are (1:55)
  • Ungodliness and Witchcraft (3:01)
  • The Truth is Elliptical (5:03)
  • Hypatia’s Last Walk (2:33)
  • The Skies Do Not Fall (4:10)

Running Time: 56 minutes 42 seconds

Warner Music Spain 5051865584728 (2009)

Music composed by Dario Marianelli. Conducted and orchestrated by Benjamin Wallfisch. Additional music by Lucio Godoy. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by James Bellamy. Album produced by Dario Marianelli.

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