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Sword-and-Sandals Epic Agora: Too Hard on the Crusaders!

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Agora
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar
Newmarket Films
Opens May 28 Paris Theater and Landmark Sunshine

Not lacking for conviction or cojones, Alejandro Amenábar's Agora is a big, broad, stridently atheistic sword-and-sandals entertainment that recounts a tragic turning point in world history. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer in fourth-century Alexandria whose life and work is increasingly threatened by a bloody societal shift toward reactionary, virulent Christianity. To its credit, the film calls out Christianity's ignominious imperialism and locates a valid historical analogue to the religious extremism of today. Yet good intentions shan't save Amenábar from his own ham-fisted methods. It's one thing to depict crusaders hurling a cynic onto hot coals, ritually slaughtering pagans, stoning and massacring Jews, and enforcing total faith—but need they wear uniformly dark, ragged cloaks and snarl through unkempt faces, while pagans dress brightly, bathe frequently, and no doubt smell really good? Servant-boy-cum-wispy-indie-rocker-of-antiquity Max Minghella even comes to learn that slavery is far better than belief. Amenábar's camera assumes extreme low and high angles, setting heroes against starry skies before freely zooming back to assume a celestial POV (praise be to Google Maps). What's missing is a satisfying, plausible middle ground where heady ideas and metaphors coalesce into compelling drama. Amenábar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) has the ambition but not yet the skill of a Kubrick or Spielberg to make visual flourishes function emotionally. The music swells, characters glower and suffer in slow-mo, and Amenábar champions the life of the intellect by condescending to ours.

 
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