Nostradamus

(Historical biopicture Color)

A gaudy tableau on an epic scale, Nostradamus is a disappointingly conventional biopicture about the noted midieveal scholar-prophet. Designed as a monument, this costume drama exhibits most of the sorrows of international productions: a rambling narrative, anachronistic language, unsuccessful blend of accents and acting styles. Like 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and more recently La reine Margot, Nostradamus is the kind of extravaganza that Americans tend to steer away from, but is embraced by offshore audiences, particularly in Europe.

While focusing on the life of the famous philosopher-scientist, Michel de Nostradame (1503-1566), there's no doubt that the filmmakers see strong contemporary relevance in the tale of a man who devoted his entire life to fight the ravaging ills of sixteenth century Europe: uncontrollable plagues, conservative medical establishment, and the terror of Inquisition.

The story establishes right away the curious, unorthodox persona of Nostradamus who, as a boy, began experiencing visions of the future. He went on to study new forms of medicine, hoping to find cure for the plague, but his nonconformist personality and unorthodox methods irritated the Catholic Church as well as medical profession.

Using the paradigm of classic mythology, the filmmakers perceive Nostradamus as a misunderstood hero–and survivor. Born Jewish, he managed to survive the Inquisition, the plague and the devastating death of his first wife, Marie (Julia Ormond), who shared his interest in science, to marry a second wife, Anne (Assumpta Serna), and establish another family.

Scripters Boeser and Asworth fail the challenge of writing literate yet credible dialogue for historical characters and placing them in authentic political contexts. At times, narrative feels as a synopsis or structure for a movie yet to be made.

Filmed in Romania, France, and England, novice director Christian (the accomplished art director on Alien, Star Wars) endows his pic with lush visuals (kudos to lenser Crossan), but he's unable to find the core of the story and subsequently, after the first reel, the film loses its dramatic focus and momentum.

After a rather engaging start, pic slows down and begins to ramble, jumping from one disaster to another. It briefly comes to life, though, in the sequences of Nostradamus and Catherine De Medici (Amanda Plummer), the Queen of France, whose admiration for Nostradamus' work saved his life.

Despite its humanitarian intentions, Nostradamus is neither very involving nor seriously informative. The flashforwards of the hero's prophetic visions of Hitler, WWII, and Kennedy, basically don't work; they puncture a script that is already too episodic. The film ends on a rather false note with a spaceship on the screen, a la 2001: A Spacy Odyssey and the Star War movies, optimistically heralding a brighter future.

Conforming to its genre requirements, Nostradamus is a big amorphous picture with the normal complement of stunning storms, spectacular fights, multicolored pageantry–and naked bodies. Almost every encounter with a woman–be she a patient, sister-in-law or the Queen–has erotic overtones and ends up in seduction, which trivializes both historical events and personae.

In the lead, handsome French thesp Karyo acquits himself with a decent performance, which considering the script's limitations, is an achievement. Of the large international cast, Rutger Hauer is effective as a mad monk, F. Murray Abraham is for once effectively cast as the hero's mentor, and Amanda Plummer is so weird as Catherine de Medici that her lines almost sound campy.

It might be a faint praise, but Nostradamus is easier to watch than the beautiful but vapid 1492 or the obnoxiously pretentious La reine Margot.