Agora (Dario Marianelli)

Final Musings: Dario Marianelli delivers his finest score and arguably the best of 2009. The extraordinary scope of this textural epic is evident in its rousing orchestral and choral force. The diversity of the score in its ethnic instrumentation is commendable. And praise must be given for the technical aspects of the score that so brilliantly aid the film in conveying its many complex messages. It may not appeal to listeners looking for easily recognizable themes, but this score needs time to grown on you (as all great scores do). A marvelous feat for any composer. 

In 2009, Alejandro Amenabar’s historical epic, Agora, was let loose on the world. Due to its controversial nature however, much of North America did not have the opportunity to experience it (those who did, benefited from its limited release in the US). A shame, as the film is a unique and intellectual venture into the genre of ‘toga movies’. Historically, the film covers the fall of classical antiquity, the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. However, the film largely expands upon the life of the brilliant female philosopher and astronomer, Hypatia. The film’s plot follows Hypatia’s discovery of the elliptical shape of our orbits, the life of her former slave Davus along with Hypatia’s disciples and the religious turmoil that the philosopher caused with her theories that unfortunately led to her death by a mob (although this is portrayed differently for dramatic effect in film). By utilizing these great historical events and the beautiful landscape of the ancient city of Alexandria, Amenabar makes powerful statements about the dangers of religious conflict, the relationship between faith and science and importance of furthering scientific ventures. It altogether creates a great film with excellent actors (primarily Rachel Weisz), beautiful cinematography, grand sets and intellectual depth. The use of extensive symbolism throughout the novel carries the viewers along with Hypatia’s journey into the realization of the wonders of the universe. One must commend the film in its epic scope and attempt to cover these many intellectual statements effectively. The film however, was met with mixed reactions due to its historical inaccuracies and its negative yet clearly controversial portrayal of Christians. Moreover, the many concepts were not tied together as well as it could have been thus resulting in a lack of cohesiveness in the film. Regardless, a great film with this kind of scope needed a powerful musical atmosphere to guide the viewers on the emotional journey. And on all accounts, Marianelli delivers with an extraordinary score that is arguably his best yet.

Academy award winner, Dario Marianelli is no stranger to the film score world. He is well known for classical romantic style of scoring in his popular scores for Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. And his brutal yet intelligent action music has been sought after in Brothers Grimm and V for Vendetta. Yet only with Agora does Marianelli really merge the two styles to create an epic score of the highest order. This score takes the romantic classicism that the composer is so well known for and translates it into a rousing orchestral and choral force to be reckoned with. The score truly excels in its diversity by combining a variety of ethnic elements appropriate to the era along with Marianelli’s classical style. The tragic and romantic nature of the themes along with the beautifully layered pieces will happily remind listeners of his previous works. Moreover, this score is quite harmonious and the raw tonality of the music will remind listeners of Shore’s Lord of the Rings at its most epic climaxes.

What must be established now is that Agora will not stun mainstream listeners with its themes. No, rather the score makes use of different textures to portray the concepts on film. The first element that will hit you in the face is obviously the wailing woman. If you abhor wailing, then this score is not for you as this element is consistent throughout the score. I myself am personally fine with it. For some, the wailing will be a detraction in the score. However there are times when the wailing can be truly intoxicating, especially when utilized in full force with the orchestra and the chorus. Hearing powerful moments such as 1:20 in Alexandria, the beginning of What Do the Skies See, the opening of A Boat Experiment and the score’s finale, The Skies Do Not Fall, one cannot help but feel hit emotionally. Therefore, the wailing becomes an essential dramatic component of the score.  To address the Christians in the film, Marianelli uses the dark and forceful male chorus (perhaps due to the antagonistic portrayal of the people). This method is undeniably effective, especially in What Do the Skies See, as the chorus is in battle with the orchestra while the Christians attempt to destroy the Pagans. This stunning cue opens up with light upper choral passages. The female chorus is usually used to convey mourning or tragedy when needed. To address Hypatia’s ventures into the mysteries of space, Marianelli attempts to build up an ethereal, fantasy-like atmosphere. As Hypatia would stare up into the sky, asking her usual philosophical questions, you will hear a lovely array of harps, light ethnic accents, gorgeous upper flute lines and ethereal string and choral passages. The duduk is another important textural element that is prevalent throughout the entire score. Some may relate this score to Gladiator or Passion of the Christ for its use of ethnic instruments and some is as bold to declare it as cliché, but such arguments are ridiculous. Is it cliché to use period-appropriate instrumental colours for a score? Perhaps those who complain would prefer a score along the lines of droning instead. Anyways, one must commend Marianelli for putting together all these elements into one hell of an epic powerhouse. There is a raw force in Agora that will stun listeners and remind them of similarly epic scores like Lord of the Rings in scope. Simply listen to the stunning crescendos in The Library Falls, The Skies Do Not Fall and A Boat Experiment to get a sense of the power in this score. To add on, the orchestrations of this score are impressive. For instance, in the cue What Do the Skies See, the powerful choral passage with the moving bass lines I s topped off with extremely high woodwind (likely piccolo) figures that are extremely effective in portraying a sense of awe and chaos. The rumbling percussion and pounding brass are brilliant ways of conveying the images on screen.

Yet, it is important to remember that just because Agora is a very diverse score in texture, that doesn’t go to say the score is without its fair share of themes. In fact, Marianelli incorporates a variety of beautiful themes intelligently throughout the score. They are subtle in nature, but suffice in its goals. There are 3 primary themes in the score. The main theme is a lovely descending romantic idea that first debuts in The Miracle of the Bread. One may argue that this is actually Davus’ theme, but for now it shall be dubbed as the main theme. You hear its most lovely incarnation in The Rule of the Parabolani. The extraordinary counterpoint writing for the cello and flute along with the lovely harp accents are classic Marianelli writing. The second theme is one I like to call the “wonder” theme, as it is how Marianelli thematically addresses Hypatia’s philosophical moments of ingenious in the film. You first hear the theme quietly peeking in the string section at 0:38 in Thinking Aloud, then the theme has another statement in 0:58 of the same track. The statement is brief, thus you do not hear whole theme in this moment. Marianelli also provides a secondary theme/motif for the concept of knowledge, so I’ll simply label this as the “knowledge” motif. It is a descending theme that is both menacing and archaic, quite appropriate to the concept of knowledge really. You first hear it at 1:18 in Thinking Aloud. To hear fuller statements of the wonder theme, simply listen to 0:45 in Aristarchus the Visionary, If I Could Just Unravel This or its grand moment at 2:10 in The Truth Is Elliptical.  This theme is rather brilliant in its duties. Its ominous nature, especially in moments like 3:15 into A Boat Experiment truly does convey a sense of genuine wonder, intrigue and mystery. Now, it should be established that Agora is a film that primarily warns viewers of the dangers of religious conflict and the consequences of destroying knowledge. The third main theme is meant to represent this idea as a whole. The structure of the theme is always rising in a melodramatic fashion and thus it shall be henceforth be dubbed as the rising theme throughout the remainder of the review. Its first significant appearance is at 1:50 in Two Hundred Thousand Books. This is arguably the most powerful theme in the score as it contains the most significant emotional impact. This is especially evident in the finale, where the awe-inducing nature of the crescendo can really strike at the heart. It is at moments like these that Agora outshines its competition in its epic scope. It is important to understand that there are also a variety of motifs attached to each of these individual main themes. For instance the rising theme has three secondary motifs attached to it. There is the theme on the solo cello that plays out at 3:38 in Two Hundred Thousand Books and the beginning of The Skies Do Not Fall. There is also the brief motif on the duduk that debut at 1:40 in Two Hundred Thousand Books. The third secondary idea in relation to the rising theme is the mourning motif. This debuts at the beginning of What do the Skies See. It is actually more along the lines of an inverted, harmonically related incarnation of the rising theme itself. Now on to the other themes. Along with the archaic knowledge motif, there are three other motifs associated with the wonder theme and Hypatia’s philosophical ramblings. There is the lovely flute line that plays out every time Hypatia stares up at the sky and discusses the wanderers, and so it shall be dubbed as the wanderer motif.  This motif shows up at 0:45 in Aristarchus the Visionary and 1:31 at If I Could Just Unravel This. The next motif shall be known as the discovery motif as it’s a glorious idea of beauty that is played whenever Hypatia gets one step closer to the answer. You first hear it at 2:03 in Aristarchus the Visionary as Hypatia learns of Aristarchus’ theory and again at 2:20 in If I Could Just Unravel This (without the choir this time). The next motif is the most ominous idea associated with Hypatia and it basically plays out whenever Hypatia is clueless and in doubt. Thus, let’s call it the doubt motif (forgive me for the horrible names). Oddly enough, this motif always plays after the discovery motif (suggesting that even though Hypatia’s found an answer, she’s only left with more questions). Its basically four chords that portray a sense of wonder and intrigue and it can be heard at the end of Aristarchus the Visionary. All these tiny secondary ideas basically make way for the primary themes that they are associated with. This method of thematic composing is great as it makes a very fluid album by alternating between various bridges to the main themes. Thus, Marianelli does indeed offer a thematically rich score.

Other than the points mentioned above, the big feature in Agora is that this a score of crescendos. Glorious crescendos are abundant and thus the album constantly plays in glory for the listener. Just listen to Insult to the Gods, What Do the Skies See, Two Hundred Thousand Books, As Christian As You Are, The Truth is Elliptical and The Skies Do Not Fall and you’ll realize the numerous glorified crescendos in this epic score. To get a sense of the best of the album and its role musically, read through the following track overviews.

Muse on these:

Alexandria

This track offers a plethora of ethnic and diverse instrumental colours. The lovely rhythmic harps and percussion accents signify the bustling city of Alexandria. The duduk has an elegant and poignant beauty to it in this cue. The light string and flute passages are also quite beautiful in their execution. The growling brass from 1:18 works with the wailing voice to create one of the more intoxicating moments of the score. For those who enjoy the ethnic portions of Agora, you will find yourself coming back to this often.

The Miracle of Bread

As the slave Davus is introduced to the miracle of charity, faith and unity the beautiful main theme plays out in the background. This is a cue of tragic beauty as the young slave begins to find salvation in the Christian faith as he gives out bread to the unfortunate. You also hear the secondary ideas associated with the main theme in this cue (ex. 2:37).

An Insult to the Gods

This is one of the more raw moments of power in the score. With menacing bass and growling percussion, the low brass ascends in 3 note figures while the wailing is embedded into the background. The choir kicks in at 0:46. This cue once again shows the nature of the crescendos in this score. Marianelli also portrays his excellent skills in causing turmoil within the orchestra to represent the brink of immense religious conflict.

What Do the Skies See?

Easily one of the best, if not the best track in the score. This cue will be a delight for both intellectuals and mainstream listeners. This sequence is portrayed as a birds-eye view of the fighting and chaos, thus the title “What do the Skies See”. A tragic descending mourning motif plays out as the viewers are exposed to the  violence on screen. This creates one of the most emotional moments in the both the film and score. The listeners will hear the harmonic progressions that foreshadow the rising theme in some ways. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the following material portrays a raging musical battle between the orchestra and the chorus to epitomize the violence amidst the Pagans and the Christians. The growing forces of the Christians are musically implied when the male chorus and chanting kicks in at 0:38. Then we arrive at one of the most powerful moments in the score. At 1:25, the Pagans make a final stand. The strings and the brass rouse up some of the most powerful orchestral statements that Marianelli has conjured in his career. The high piccolo lines are incredibly enticing in its application. The force of this epic moment will most likely harken listeners back to Shore’s Lord of the Rings (which can never really be a bad thing). The mixed chorus and the all-mighty, ancient muscle power of the orchestra proclaim its defiance against the Christians. At about 2:15, the percussion rumbles around as the Pagans attempt to defend themselves. The male chorus however ominously sneaks in to warn the Pagans of their impending doom. The orchestral ruckus and the male chorus battle each other as the Christians are driving the Pagan forces back to retreat. At 3:21, the brass blast away as the Pagans retreat to the library. Meanwhile, the menacing male chorus is chanting as the Christians advance to the library. Some stunning orchestral passages play out here, but they are no match for the overbearing might of the underestimated Christians. They were outnumbered and they had lost. The Christians claim victory as the male chorus ends the battle with a victorious chanting of something that resembles the word “Christus”. Brilliant stuff!

Aristarchus the Visionary

As Hypatia wonders at the mysterious skies, the music plays out on strings until the lovely flutes play out the wanderer motif at 0:45, which goes on to lead into wonder theme. At 1:38, the ominous knowledge theme leads into a glorious crescendo of the discovery motif.  The music thus implies the importance of looking back to the past (as Hypatia had to do with Aristarchus) to get a step closer to the future. The doubt motif closes the cue.

The Library Falls

We arrive at one of the more dramatic portions of the score. Along with the rumbling percussion, the menacing male chorus tells us that the Christians have won ownership of the great library, and so the pagans have lost. They must flee, but not without saving the massive accumulation of knowledge that was present in the greatest library of the world (at the time). At 0:38, the orchestra rapidly increases in another rising motif in an attempt to save what was left of the books. Meanwhile, the male chorus is pounding away against the orchestra in an attempt to get in (as the Christians tried to get into the library). The orchestral turmoil and chaos tell us that the pagans aren’t faring very well. At 1: 59, the camera pans down on the massive gates of the library while the stirring wailing plays along with the rising theme. The epic crescendo plays as the gates are broken and thus foreshadow the dark consequences that are about to occur.

Two Hundred Thousand Books

On film, the camera takes a panoramic view of the library on top as the Christians rush into the library. As the approach the great halls of knowledge, the knowledge motif appropriately mourns the inevitable loss of wealth of the library that is about to occur. At about 1:01, another LOTR worthy rousing choral bit occurs which leads into the duduk motif (and in turn the rising theme). As Davus realizes that he is sick of his enslavement and the lack of respect, he is torn between the mandates of the faith he is obligated to serve (paganism) and the faith that his heart desires to follow (Christianity).  And so the rising theme plays in crescendo as the victim takes out his emotional turmoil and frustration on the statues of the ancient Pagan philosophers. As the crescendo is complete, the music settles down to play the solo cello motif that is also associated with the rising theme. It plays in mourning as the Christians destroy everything in the library. The rising theme then commences again into an even more glorious crescendo. It is important to understand that the rising theme is used to represent the tragic consequences of religious conflict. It does so first by showing the breaking of Davus’ innocence; it is then used to portray the loss of the abundance of wealth and knowledge in the great library. Definitely one of the greater moments in an already great score.

The Rule of the Parabolani

This is arguably the most beautiful track in the score. Dario Marianelli’s romantic style is most prominently featured in this lovely piece of music. With enchanting harp lines, flute figures and gorgeous woodwind/strings passages that play out the main theme. A must-have for all film score collectors.

A Boat Experiment

One of the most intoxicating spotlights for the wailing soloist occurs at the beginning of this cue as the camera beautifully pans out from the Lighthouse of Alexandria. A powerful statement of the wonder theme shortly follows this up. Lyrical choral passages are followed by rhythmic figures to represent the beginning of Hypatia’s boat experiment. Then as the bag falls from the top of the boat to the bottom, one of the most stunning crescendos in the score take place (namely at 2:10). After Hypatia explains that she expected her experiment to fail (as the bag landed on a seemingly stationary spot). The wonder theme ominously plays as Hypatia wonders about how such came to be possible.

As Christian As You Are

As Bishop Cyril condemns Hypatia for practicing witchcraft, he forces the prefect, Orestes (one of Hypatia’s pupils), and his colleagues to kneel before the word of God. The power of the Christians and the bishop here could not be more evident in the music as the all-mighty male chorus chants with such great power. The tension is portrayed well on film until Orestes leaves, unable to condemn his former mentor and love. The powerful orchestral passages are not unlike those heard in What do the Skies See, thus implying a possible connection between both conflicts. The chorus chants in the end as Orestes is stoned.

Ungodliness and Witchcraft

This cue is full of tragic layering that will remind listeners of Marianelli’s fantastic elegy writing for Atonement. The gorgeous material plays as both Davus and Hypatia realize the inevitable fate of the philosopher due to the accusations made against her. The rising theme is slightly hinted throughout this cue until melodramatic solo cello figures plays out at 1:53. The knowledge motif closes the scene beyond 2:30 to signify the greater urgency for Hypatia’s quest.

The Truth is Elliptical

The truth is indeed elliptical! And that is what this cue is all about. An eerie quote of the wonder theme leads onto a very fantastical yet mysterious series of a variety of lines to portray Hypatia’s journey to the truth. She’s so close now! At about 1:54, there is a glorious crescendo leads to a beautiful statement of the wonder theme as she draws an ellipse on the sand, thus revealing the answer to the orbital shape of the solar system. The music shouts out “she’s done it!” The duduk now takes the listeners to Davus on screen who is still torn between staying with his fellow Parabalini, or saving Hypatia. He decides to do the latter. And as he stares at the sunset with the female choir, he sets out with an immense crescendo utilizing the orchestra (with its pounding brass), the chorus and the wailing vocals.

Hypatia’s Last Walk

Unfortunately, due to Hypatia’s refusal of baptizing the public in the name of religious conformity, her doom had been set in stone. The full chorus mourns for Hypatia as she is taken by the Parabolani to meet her doom. At 0:55, the descending mourning motif plays as Davus sees Hypatia take her last steps towards the library. She attempts to stare at the Sun one last time before she is beat and covered. The rumbling percussion leads to the resounding ending of the film.

The Skies Do Not Fall

We come to the film’s finale, which is truly a powerful one at that. As the Parabolani pick up stones to stone innocent Hypatia naked, Davus walks up and embraces her. Yet it is not for pleasure. Hypatia apprehending this, gratefully accepts his mercy. And so the rising theme plays out emotionally the cruelty of it all. All Davus did was the crime of loving the women, and for that, fate makes him her murderer. After a powerful montage of the past, and Hypatia’s last struggles for breath, the viewers should not be surprised to find they crying. The extraordinary crescendo closes with a last look at the ellipse on the top of the temple. The rising theme is really put to the test here as it performs its role for portraying the injustice of the ever-prevalent nature of religious conflicts. As the heart broken Davus walks out, the film pans out with facts about the remaining legacy of Bishop Cyril and Hypatia ending with an epic music finale that will reach the listeners and viewers with great resonance.

It may seem as if all the cues have been covered in the name of highlights (and with the exception of Orestes’ Offering for some, there is extraordinary stuff in every cue). Hence if you hoped to take five cues out of this, relish The Skies Do Not Fall, What Do the Skies See?, The Rule of the Parabolani, A Boat Experiment and Hypatia’s Last Walk.

The extensive analysis was necessary as it is important to understand to the context for which the score was written to emotionally connect with it. Marianelli delivers an extraordinarily intellectual epic of a score that addresses the concepts of the film more aptly than most in the industry currently can. The variety of themes and underlying motifs does this well. Also, it is interesting to note how the plethora of rising and descending structures is prominent in the score. This may have been done perhaps to structurally represent the rising and falling nature of civilizations, religions, philosophies and ultimately humanity in the film. This score truly is an epic score of the highest order. The great recording and mixing is also to be commended along with the top-notch orchestrations. In the end, I would be surprised to find some who would not consider this amongst Marianelli’s best (although I would argue it is his best) work yet. Thus, its not possible for me to give Agora anything lower than the highest rating.

Rating: * * * * *

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