A gaudy tableau on an epic scale, “Nostradamus” is a disappointingly conventional biopic about the noted medieval scholar/prophet. Designed as a monument, this costume drama exhibits most of the sorrows of international productions: a rambling narrative, anachronistic language and an 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 that is embraced by offshore audiences, particularly in Europe.
While focusing on the life of philosopher/scientist Michel de Nostradame ( 1503-1566), there’s no doubt that the filmmakers see contemporaryrelevance in the tale of a man who devoted his life to fighting the ills of 16th-century Europe: uncontrollable plagues, a conservative medical establishment and the terror of the 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 a cure for the plague, but his nonconformist personality and unorthodox methods irritated the Catholic Church as well as the 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 Knut Boeser and Piers Ashworth fail to meet the challenge of writing literate yet credible dialogue for historical characters and placing them in authentic political contexts. At times, the narrative feels like a synopsis for a movie yet to be made.
Filming in Romania, France and England, novice director Roger Christian (the accomplished art director on “Alien” and “Star Wars”) endows his pic with lush visuals (kudos to lenser Denis Crossan), but he’s unable to find the core of the story.
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 between 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 involving nor seriously informative. The flashes forward of the hero’s prophetic visions of Adolf Hitler, World War II and John F. Kennedy 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 Space Odyssey” and the “Star Wars” 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 Plummer is so weird as Catherine de Medici that her lines almost sound campy.
It might be faint praise, but “Nostradamus” is easier to watch than the beautiful but vapid “1492” or the obnoxiously pretentious “La Reine Margot.”