Science and religion clash in 'Agora'
The new togas-and-sandals epic "Agora" has a lot on its mind -- everything from the age-old battle between science and religion, to the mysteries of the cosmos.
Give it credit for wrestling with big themes, but it is also pretty convincing evidence that even the most stunning CGI special effects can't create a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude all by itself.
The story here unfolds in the fourth century A.D. in Roman-dominated Egypt. The film's mise-en-scene is spectacular; the sets of the ancient city of Alexandria are something that would make Cecil B. DeMille weep with envy. Director Alejandro Amenabar -- who wrote and directed "Abre Los Ojos," the thriller remade later as "Vanilla Sky" -- employs a stunt in which his camera swoops into the city literally from outer space, creating a breathtaking, Google-Maps kind of effect.
Such a trick is more than just showing off, however. It fits into the film's grand narrative. The central figure of "Agora" is Hypatia, one of the ancient world's most prominent female scholars. As portrayed with square-shouldered dignity by Rachel Weisz, Hypatia is a teacher of natural philosophy what they used to call science who is obsessed with the prevailing astronomical question of the day: What is the secret to the movement of the heavenly bodies?
Hypatia's preoccupations are played out against a background of severe religious and cultural strife. The new faith of Christianity is spreading across the ancient world and in Alexandria it meets resistance with the old pagan belief systems. Let's just say that the resulting clash makes our contemporary Tea Party demonstrations look like, well, a tea party....