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A small gem, 'Agora', hits DVD shelves

Hail Rome, empire of science, math and religious intolerance

John DeFore
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) ponders the world of math and teaches it to eager students in 'Agora.'

It's easy to understand how "Agora" got short shrift in theaters despite the marquee value of its star, Rachel Weisz, and its director, Alejandro Amenábar (whose "The Sea Inside" and "The Others" put him on the arthouse radar). It was just too brainy to visit many multiplexes on its way to DVD.

The movie, out on disc this week from Lionsgate, is set during the Roman empire. But instead of focusing on massive military campaigns or death-defying gladiators, it revolves around the pursuit of knowledge — both empirical and spiritual — and the strife that arises when one person's knowledge contradicts another's.

In Hypatia (Weisz), who teaches science to earnest (and often lovestruck) young men in the library of Alexandria, the film finds a character who embodies the pursuit of mathematical logic to an extent those in "A Beautiful Mind" and other films rarely have.

Amenábar and co-screenwriter Mateo Gil are not shy about letting Hypatia spell out her reasoning for us — listening to her ponder the movement of the planets and the unlikelihood of heliocentrism is like being in the world's most expensive physics class, and not in a bad way. (Though the movie occasionally risks mockery when it underscores each mathematical insight with a heavy orchestral swell.)

In between the math lies a more hot-button theme: religious intolerance that first pits pagans against Christians, then sets Christians against Jews and always leaves skeptics in the lurch. In Agora, as in some other places throughout history, faith and reason are poor neighbors, and Amenábar chronicles the destruction of a great library and the humiliation of one of its finest intellects with intelligence and pathos. "Agora" isn't a perfect or a happy movie, but it largely succeeds in doing things few films even attempt.

For a different, more lighthearted flavor of uncommon braininess, Garry Shandling's fans can rejoice in a new box set of his "The Larry Sanders Show" (Shout! Factory), hitting stores in just more than a week. The series was ahead of the curve in its "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-like mashup of reality and fictionalization, and it nurtured such young talents as Judd Apatow, Janeane Garofalo and Jeremy Piven. It also remains one of the best gigs of native Texan Rip Torn's long career.

But admirers of the show had little hope of seeing it handled well on home video in 2007, when a Season One set was followed by a best-of collection that made it look as if the subsequent five seasons might never come out on disc.

Happily, the new 17-DVD set contains all 89 original episodes along with bountiful bonus stuff and a guidebook to the series. This unexpected release might not quash the big-ticket worries "Agora" brings up, but it at least suggests that good sense sometimes prevails on the home-video front.