Good news: “Inception” isn’t the only movie that wants to make you think this summer. But, other than that shared goal, the Leo DiCaprio action flick couldn’t be further from “Agora,” a toga-and-sandals film that is more about introspection than spectacle. Though it unfolds in Alexandria of the fourth century A.D., the movie consciously holds up a mirror to our own time, depicting a civilization wracked by religious dogma, intolerance and terrorism.
The latest from Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others,” “The Sea Inside”), “Agora” focuses on the real historical figure Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz). A Greek scholar at the Library of Alexandria, she teaches philosophy, mathematics and astronomy to a symposium of earnest young men — some of whom can’t help falling in love with her. One is the wealthy Orestes (Oscar Isaac). Another is Hypatia’s own slave, Davus (Max Minghella), though she’s oblivious to his aroused glances.
Don’t worry: “Agora” isn’t a movie about a love triangle. Hypatia is indifferent to romance, seeing it as a distraction in her drive to unlock the mysteries of the stars. (Her public dismissal of a suitor is infamously rude, and based on historical record.) An idealist, she believes that the quest for knowledge is the one true good of the world, superseding all else. “More things unite us than divide us,” she tells her students. “We are brothers.”
Outside her lecture hall, things aren’t so simple. The gentry of Alexandria, Hypatia included, are pagans who worship their gods at the library. But an increasingly loud rabble, led by street preacher Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), is stirring things up in a big way. They call themselves Christians. And they’re equally opposed to pagans, to Jews, to the elitist writings stored in the library and to the notion that a mere woman could be shameless enough to pretend to know more than a man.
Covering perhaps a decade of time, “Agora” features shots of the earth seen from space, a glorious, untroubled sphere floating in the firmament. Then come closer shots, aerial perspectives that reduce mankind to a stream of creatures scurrying across the globe’s crust: ant-like, hive-minded. In these images the movie encapsulates its main conflict: the gulf between the vast celestial and the small minds that try to comprehend it.
“Agora” juxtaposes Hypatia’s moments of elation — conducting a test of gravity on a sailboat, or drawing the ellipse of the earth’s orbit in the sand — against the increasing political and religious chaos of the streets. The irony here is that Hypatia is in pursuit of true divinity, while those who claim to be acting under divine orders are pulling heaven down into the bloodied gutters.
Weisz is wonderful as a woman who is at times coolly authoritative, but sometimes socially clueless. The supporting cast, including Rupert Evans and Sami Samir as Christian bishops with different agendas, is strong. At times, “Agora” may be too simplistic in drawing political/religious parallels between then and now. But its heart, like its heroine’s, is in the right place. So is its brain.
“Agora.” With Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac. Co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar. 127 minutes. Unrated. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.