The good old-fashioned historical epic has had a rough go of it lately, since vast masses of livestock, chariots and living, breathing extras are far more expensive, and slightly less thrilling than, say, a giant CGI scorpion. Though it's not technically biblical — set in the 4th century — Agora gives it the old college try. Though it lacks 3-D beasties and a crunchy nu-metal soundtrack, the film benefits from an appealing heroine and a detailed production design that at least attempts to paint the temples properly.
As with much of antiquity, there's debate about the destruction of Egypt's great Library of Alexandria in 391, and Agora treats its wildest speculation as gospel, though there is no arguing the film's political take: Here, the Christians are the savages and the pagans are the enlightened ones.
The most enlightened of them all is the brilliant mathematician Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), head mistress of the Alexandria Academy, a lonely outpost of science and Hellenistic intellectual ideals in a Roman Empire swiftly falling under Christian ideology.
As brilliant as she is, Hypatia's diverse male students are as interested in her lovely body as her mind, and several of them vie for her attention. However, she doesn't have time to make moon eyes at anyone, as she's too busy gazing at stars and unraveling mysteries of celestial movements. When brash Orestes (Oscar Isaac) tries to woo her with a gift, she returns in kind with bloody menstrual rags. Ouch. Talk about a rejection letter.
The film spans 20-odd years, as her pupils rise in the government and clergy, and her former love-struck slave (Minghella) becomes a "soldier of God" in the increasingly militant Christian zealot ranks. In between high-minded astronomical debates and exposition, there are riots, murders and general carnage, with throngs of angry peasants flooding streets and barking about some injustice or another outrage. The last third becomes one travesty after another in the name of religion, though our heroine doesn't seem to notice she's been branded a heretic, twiddling with her astrolabe and model planets, trying to get a several hundred-year jump on Galileo and Kepler.
Despite the noblest of intentions, it's nearly impossible to keep this stuff from seeming like a drippy toga party. While meant to be epic and inspiring, Agora ends with a huge, blood-soaked bummer. Humans are capable of great miracles, and even greater folly. The apple of knowledge is strange fruit indeed.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].