A vivid historical drama with a comic-book tinge

Rachel Weisz and Michael Lonsdale in a scene from "Agora," set in fourth-century Egypt under Roman rule.
Rachel Weisz and Michael Lonsdale in a scene from "Agora," set in fourth-century Egypt under Roman rule.
Posted: July 23, 2010

Big ideas - about science, the solar system, Apollonian cones, man's relationship to man, to woman, to God - tumble excitedly from , an oddball historical drama set in the Roman-ruled Egypt of the fourth century.

There, in Alexandria, the philosopher Hypatia (a bright-eyed and toga-clad Rachel Weisz) invites her young followers to contemplate the stars, to wonder about mathematics and the meaning of life. She is beautiful as well as brainy, and both her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), and her outspoken student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), throw ardent gazes in her direction. Orestes does more than gaze - he professes his love for Hypatia for all to hear. Davus, however, must sneak his affections, stealing the slightest touch of Hypatia's foot while she sleeps.

But Hypatia is married to philosophy, and she snubs Orestes in cruel style. As for Davus, the film suggests that Hypatia harbors reciprocal feelings. But, hey, he's a slave. A social order must be adhered to.

Then the social order goes flying out the window: Agora chronicles the rise of an anti-Roman, anti-pagan Christian fundamentalist movement that caught fire and exploded. Toss in mounting tensions with the Jews, and Alexandria, circa 391 A.D., was in riotous tumult.

"Since when were there so many Christians?" wonders an alarmed aristo as a misguided attempt to quash Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), the firebrand rabble-rouser, leads to slaughter. Before long, the Roman elite are on the run, their grand library looted and trashed.

Parallels to the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, and to the ongoing troubles in the Palestinian territories, aren't hard to draw. Religion and zealotry, says , are to blame for centuries of war.

I call Agora oddball because while its concepts are high-minded and its re-creation of Roman Egypt exhilarating (the sets and seamless computer-generated visuals are something else), there's a kind of wacky reductive vibe, too, a Classic Comics approach to narrative. Isaac's Orestes is far too simple a figure (the charismatic actor was bad Prince John in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, and good Joseph in Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story). In fact, all of the men - which is all of the cast, save Weisz - are characters of one or two notes: the ranting partisan, the adoring servant, the love-struck politician, the impulsive father (Michael Lonsdale), the angry mob.

Perhaps this is as it should be, to turn the spotlight on Hypatia and her passionate intellect, and on the calamitous fate that awaits her.

Agora is entertaining, and even at times illuminating. Director Alejandro Amenabar, who collaborated on the screenplay, goes all Google Earth-y at key moments, pulling back from Alexandria's painted marble streetscapes to look at the world from space, watching the orbiting spheres in all their infinite indifference.

It's a vivid way to contextualize Hypatia's astronomical musings, but it's kind of out there, too.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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