After directing a number of intimate, genre-hopping character studies (Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others, The Sea Inside), Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar goes big and takes a hearty swing at the historical epic, but the result is a balk. Agora, financed in Spain for a whopping $70 million, is as grandly ambitious as Spartacus or Gladiator, although Amenabar's goals are much loftier than mere sword-and-sandal antics.
Set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the 4th century A.D. when the Roman Empire had started to crumble, Agora centers on the chasm between the ruling pagans and the increasing masses of Christians and Jews who lived within the city but were expected to keep their beliefs private.
Rachel Weisz stars as the legendary scientist/philosopher Hypatia, who is beloved by her fawning students -- and especially by her slave Davus (Max Minghella). Hypatia ignores the growing fray around her, concentrating instead on trying to solve the mysteries of the cosmos: gravity, the moon's orbit, the alignment of the planets.
But she, like everyone else in Alexandria, is eventually pulled into the increasingly violent religious differences dividing the population. The Christians revolt, and the Roman pagans take shelter by locking themselves inside the city's famed library, one of the world's greatest repositories of scientific knowledge.
Amenabar, who also co-wrote Agora, is good at orchestrating large-scale battles between clashing, clumsy armies (he steals the bit from Braveheart in which blood splatters the camera lens). His camera also often pulls up to present a God's-eye view of the mayhem -- foolish little warring mortals scurrying about like insignificant ants.
Agora eventually jumps ahead several years to discover what life in Alexandria has become under Christian rule (now the Jews have become outcasts). In a none-too-veiled metaphor for the present, Amenabar argues that religious fundamentalism of any kind can only breed strife and hatred.
The story's historical setting is fascinating, but the movie is populated by thin, uninvolving characters. Hypatia is well played by Weisz, who manages to make the didactic dialogue sound natural. But her character is so consumed by intellectual pursuits she has no time for even a trace of personal life (she's constantly babbling about science and rebuffs all suitors). Minghella is miscast as her slave; he's too slight and boyish for the critical role he eventually will play in this story.
And despite the enormous scale of the production, Agora feels stagebound and claustrophobic, and the artificiality adds to the underlying dullness. Amenabar has succeeded at eloquently expressing his ideas: For the first time in his career, though, he's made a movie that, like his heroine, is all brain, no heart.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Richard Durden, Michael Lonsdale.
Director: Alejandro Amenabar.
Screenwriters: Alejandro Amenabar, Mateo Gil.
Producers: Fernando Bovaira, Alvaro Augustin.
A Newmarket Films release. Running time: 126 minutes. Brief nudity, violence, gore, adult themes.