.Agora

Rachel Weisz traces the Earth's orbit in 'Agora.'

PAGAN LOGIC: Rachel Weisz traces the Earth’s orbit in ‘Agora.

SEEKING a movie about the ancient world that isn’t actually about people sticking swords into one another? Pity. Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a beautifully dressed disappointment, highlighting a lovely but severely miscast Rachel Weisz as a pagan logician holding out against insurgent faith. The war on Muslim extremism is all over Agora, which is barely disguised as a story of Christian malice vs. the old world of religious polytheism.

Agora is all the more disappointing for being focused on a place and a time in the Roman empire that hasn’t been filmed before: it’s the early 400s during the Christian end of the Roman empire. Hypatia (Weisz), daughter of the librarian of Alexandria (Michael Lonsdale), is a woman with the rare privilege of being allowed to teach philosophy; her two prize students, both very fond of her, are the slave Davus (Max Minghella) and the well-born Orestes (Oscar Isaac). As little is known of Hypatia’s actual teachings, the film poses that her concerns were the matter of the shape of the Earth’s orbit round the sun (a matter referred to visually repeatedly by a Google Earth–like computer animation rising above the Nile delta and then returning to outer space). Who can blame the camera for wanting to leave this island, Earth? The film is an ant-hill-like squabble of different faiths, centered around the increasing viciousness of the local Christian bishop and the inability of the Roman government to stop the violence to come.

You can see where the 50 million Euro budget went; the aged Lonsdale has a face just right for the ancient world. And Isaac is on his mark, doing the familiar Roman empire movie trope of the effete drawler as British lord. Weisz looks very fetching in togas, but the force of Hypatia’s sweet, no-monkey-business character is stressed rather than her gravity of an intellectual. One gets the unfortunate sense that Weisz is doing what Julie Andrews would do with the role. Meanwhile, pogroms between ever more ill-identified groups remind one of how tough it is to make a film on the general theme of intolerance, or to put an upbeat ending on a story of sheer tragedy.

Agora

Unrated; 127 min.

Opens July 23 @ Camera 3 and Aquarius

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