‘Agora’ serves up history in Cinerama 

An intense costume drama set in fourth-century Alexandria, with a fascinating medley of subjects, “Agora” (the center of ancient cities) should be a great film, but it settles for something less.

Director Alejandro Amenábar’s ambition to do it all — history, philosophy, religion, romance — denies him the power that comes from  more  restrained, disciplined and focused storytelling.

For “Agora,” too much is not enough.

Rachel Weisz is the improbably “brilliant and beautiful astronomer” and teacher Hypatia. The place is ancient Egypt under Roman rule, where militant Christians are at the center of a violent religious upheaval.

This historical clash, leading to the tragic destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria at the instigation of the Coptic Christian Archbishop, is diluted with Hollywood-style soap.

Two of Hypatia’s disciples, the nobleman Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and the slave Davus (Max Minghella), compete — improbably — for her hand. Davus’ quest is further complicated by the fact that his freedom depends on joining the Christians, who are destroying everything Hypatia is about.

Meanwhile, in her spare time, Hypatia discovers gravity and Copernican heliocentricity, a mere  thousand years before Copernicus got around to it. She also manages to be in the center of the action, wherever it may be, and in a commanding position.

Historians speak of a real Hypatia in Alexandria, praised for her accomplishments in literature and science, “surpassing all the philosophers of her own time,” but the character in “Agora” is more an implausible Hollywood star.

Still, in spite of such peculiarities and general bathos, the film — which won seven Goya Awards, Spain’s Oscars — has much to offer. The crowd scenes are spectacular, the costumes and sets look authentic (if too antiseptic), and the cast struggles against the script very well.

Amenábar, who directed “The Others” and “The Sea Inside,” is from Chile. The film was made in Spain with a mostly English cast. This release is in English, in a modern idiom that’s jarring at first.


MOVIE REVIEW

Agora (3 stars)

Starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom

Written by Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar

Not rated

Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes

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