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Maltese actors work with Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella

Max Minghella, Rachel Weisz and Alejandro Amenábar

Max Minghella, Rachel Weisz and Alejandro Amenábar

The shooting in Malta of the ancient Egyptian epic Agora started on Monday, marking a series of firsts for the island.

Not only is an entire film of such a scale being shot here for the first time but also many Maltese are being employed in roles and crew positions that are usually taken up by foreigners.

Agora is also the longest movie to be shot on the island, with an estimated 76 shooting days (15 weeks) scheduled. The production has been in preparation since October and should wrap by the end of June.

At least three of the 14 main actors are Maltese: Manuel Cauchi, Charles Thake and Harry Borg have the opportunity to work alongside world-acclaimed stars - Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) and 22-year-old Max Minghella, whose father, British director Anthony Minghella, died yesterday, aged 54 (see page 35). The actor is believed to have already left the island. The film is directed by 35-year-old Oscar-winning director Alejandro Amenábar.

Through the movie, Maltese industry crew and workers have the opportunity to gain unprecedented experience on a top-quality production, which is expected to translate into a positive impact on Malta in terms of its ability to host and service future productions.

On an international level, the fact that the entire film is being shot on the island is considered to be "excellent" publicity.

Malta was chosen for its locations, the unique selling point being Fort Ricasoli, where an extensive set has been constructed. Other locations include Mdina, Valletta and Marsaxlokk. The look of the extras was another important factor.

Malta beat stiff competition from other countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Spain, which were also considered for the project. The extended financial assistance granted by the government was also instrumental in bringing the production to the island, in addition to its existing financial incentives.

As to the overall economic impact of the project, the production estimates that its direct expenditure in Malta would amount to €20 million (Lm8.59 million) on local crew and labour, services and supplies, including accommodation, over a period of about 10 months. An additional €1 million (Lm430,000) per diem to the foreign crew is also likely to be spent here.

The €20 million spend is considered to be a direct injection into the local economy, with the multiplier effect and additional tax revenue, engendered by the economic activity, generating at least twice that amount, film industry observers say.

Local expenditure lists an estimated €1.4 million (Lm600,000) on transport, €1.7 million (Lm730,000) on accommodation and €1 million (Lm430,000) on construction materials. Other interesting figures include about 20,000 bed nights in hotels and rented apartments and about 12,500 weeks of car hire being bought by the production.

About 200 non-Maltese crew members are working on the production now that it has started and, by the end of the shooting, 700 Maltese would have been employed, with €2 million (Lm860,000) expected to be spent on local construction workers alone. Many of these are being trained with the best in the business and a considerable number of first-time industry workers have been employed, increasing Malta's crew base and service.

The movie is a uniquely European production. Mr Amenábar won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside). Agora, the period drama, is his second English-language film following The Others (2001), starring Nicole Kidman.

Agora is the first production from Fernando Bovaira's new Madrid-based production house Mod Producciones and the screenplay has been penned by Mr Amenábar and his regular co-writing partner Nicole Kidman.

The story is set in Roman Egypt in the fourth century AD. Ms Weisz plays astrologer-philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, who fights to save the collected wisdom of the ancient world. Her slave, Davo (Mr Minghella), is torn between his love for his mistress and the possibility of gaining his freedom by joining the rising tide of Christianity.

The idea is to bring ancient Alexandria back to life, allowing the audience to see, feel and smell a remote civilisation as if it were as real as today, the director has been quoted as saying.

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