‘Agora’: Rachel Weisz shines in peculiar historical drama

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 22, 2010 10:26pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

There are a couple of sequences in “Agora” where the pursuit of a scientific idea becomes as suspenseful as a car chase along a cliff: Where acting and camera angle and lighting conspire to make a revelation about the solar system and its planetary orbits into a true Hitchcock moment.

For that alone, “Agora” merits extra praise — but it deserves some attention, too, for its no-punches-pulled social comment and its stirring lead performance by Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz.

Plus, the movie is just odd.

It’s set in the fourth century, in Alexandria, home to a famous library and a community of different religious groups: pagans, Jews and the growing minority of Roman Christians.

Weisz plays Apatia, a historical figure much celebrated in the lore that followed her life and death. The film’s Apatia is notable for her intellectual prowess (there don’t seem to be a lot of women teaching in the local gymnasium) and her lack of interest in romance.

While tracking the various political quarrels in Alexandria, which lead to a violent conclusion, the movie also follows Apatia’s dogged inquiry into the behavior of the planets. The religious leaders of the day are insistent that Earth is at the center of the universe, with everything else revolving around it, but Apatia is starting to doubt.

Hundreds of years before Galileo, she seems to be getting the jump on figuring out the whole solar-system thing. That kind of blasphemy can get you killed, which is where some of the suspense in “Agora” comes from.

In depicting a world in which reason and rational thought are constantly bedeviled by ignorance and superstition, “Agora,” of course, is completely unrelated to the world we live in today.

Yeah, right. Actually, the parallels with present-day fundamentalism are so strong that it’s not hard to see why director Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others”) pursued this project right now. And he doesn’t disguise his complete identification with Apatia’s humanist heroine.

Weisz is quietly spellbinding in the role, and although she dominates the film, the key supporting parts are smartly cast as well. The intriguing Oscar Isaac (recently being nasty in “Robin Hood”) plays a suitor and a well-connected Alexandrian; Max Minghella a slave vulnerable to radical ideas; and the eerie Ashraf Barhom (a scene-stealer in “The Kingdom” and “Clash of the Titans”) a street agitator.

This is a peculiar film, with its strangely set-bound, sealed-off look and its earnest approach. Its sincerity is corny at times, yet its argument is potent. And its conclusion does not bode well for the rationalists.

“Agora”

A story based on the historical figure Apatia (a stirring performance by Rachel Weisz), who pursued new intellectual ideas about the universe in fourth-century Alexandria while religious fundamentalists got the upper hand. Director Alejandro Amenabar clearly intends parallels with our current times, and he succeeds, even if the movie feels earnestly cornball at times.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, violence.

Showing: Guild 45th.

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