DT Moviehouse Review: The Agony And The Ecstacy

Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s my take on The Agony And The Ecstacy.

(1965) Directed by Carol Reed, Screenplay by Phillip Dunne, based on the novel by Irving Stone

Tagline: From The Age Of Magnificence Comes A New Maginficence In Motion Pictures (blech!)

What It’s About:

In 1508, warrior pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) commissions sculptor Michaelangelo (Charleton Heston) to paint a fresco of the on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, much to the latter’s chagrin (Michaelangelo does not consider himself a painter). As war breaks out with the French, these two monumental personalities bicker and battle, and a masterpiece is born.

Why I Bought It:

“It’s not blood that flows in Michaelangelo’s veins….it’s paint.”

Any one involved in the creative process should see this film.

I first saw it on AMC in my college years. I was living practically alone in an Uptown apartment in Chicago, mostly feeling sorry for myself and writing screenplays that to this day nobody has read and a few short stories and novels that some have.

The struggle of the artist to find inspiration, the frustration of achieving the desired work with the clumsy and inadequate tools at hand, the butting heads of the artist and the patron, and the deep rooted faith of Michaelangelo in contrast to Pope Julius II’s pragmatic approach to God resonated with me on a personal level.

The two main characters are fascinating. Harrison’s Julius is fiery and active, more soldier than priest. He dons the papal cloak over gilded plate armor, and ordains cardinals on the battlefield, with cannonades crashing all around.

Now I’ve heard a lot of criticism leveled at Charlton Heston over the intervening years between now and his unfortunate appearance in Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine. I think his stance on gun rights has colored a lot of peoples’ opinions on him, including (predictably) those who have never watched anything with him in it. John Wayne gets this a lot too – I don’t know how many times people have told me they hate John Wayne only to then admit they’ve never seen The Shootist or The Searchers.

Screw that. Heston has a magnificent screen presence. He’s tall as hell, and his resonating voice makes everything he says sound important. This is not his greatest performance (that would be either his iconic Moses or Judah Ben Hur), but he’s still arresting in the role.

Heston as Michaelangelo is obstinate, tempermental and subversive. Like the pope, he speaks his mind, and while most of the cast kisses Julius’ rings, Heston bows but looks into his eyes (I believe they’re the two tallest people in the entire cast, dwarfing spaghetti western vet Tomas Milian’s Raphael) while letting slip his protestations and criticisms. The two come to loggerheads over everything from agreed upon payment (or lack of) to subject matter.

In one scene Julius brings in his cardinals to view the unfinished ceiling, and while one shouts ‘obscenity’ and ‘blasphemy’ at the writhing naked forms (‘God Himself created man in his own image. He created him with pride, not shame! It was up to the priests to invent shame!’ he retorts), another, an armchair art critic, urges Michaelangelo to paint in the style of the Greeks.

In answer, Michaelangelo explodes. ‘Why should we paint like the Greeks?! I’m not different for the sake of difference, I’m different because I am different! I’m a Florentine and a Christian working in my time. They were pagans, working in theirs. We should surpass the Greeks!’ and ‘I will paint man as God conceived of him! In the full glory of his nakedness.’

To which Julius quietly declares;

‘The ceiling will remain.’

Julius created the Swiss Guard and organized the church militaristically, conceiving of it as not only ruling Italy from Rome, but acting as a kind of United Nations peacekeeping force, strong enough to mitigate peace between the warring nations of Europe and be respected. He was also a generous patron of the arts, and it’s implicitly stated in the movie that he hopes to perhaps counterbalance the sins of his life with great, divinely inspired works to ease his sentence in Purgatory.

“When will you make and end??!” “When I’m finished!”

You get the sense that although they bicker, each admires and envies the other. Michaelangelo is an artist who models the Apostles after tavern drunkards he sketches on wine soaked tables, but he’s supremely introverted and looks always to heaven. Julius is a soldier and politician, a man of action, but he sees Michaelangelo’s gift as proof of divinity in man, a divinity he admits later that he rarely sees except through Michaelangelo’s paintings. The two have different views on God (there’s a great scene where Julius and Michaelangelo stare by candlelight at the famous rendition of God touching the newborn Adam’s outstretched finger, and Julius asks ‘Is that really how you see Him?’), but a common admiration for the beauty of art.

This is a 70mm movie and though it may feel a bit wasted on what’s essentially a bit of a stagey two man show, there are scenes where the format really shines, mostly when the ceiling of the chapel is shown. There’s also a really great eleven minute narrated opening showcasing Michaelangelo’s various sculptures as a means of putting his work into perspective. The Pieta is shown in great detail, the David, Moses, and various other works. In HD the intense realism of the statues jumps out at the viewer. Every supple curve of muscle and form, every fold of cloth. The narrator at one point says the statues don’t appear to be made of hard marble at all, but soft waxen sculptures, and you really do see that. They’re almost tear-inducing they’re so lovely. They do speak to a divinity, and argue better than any pulpiteer the existence of a soul in man.

Carol Reed, who directed one of my other favorites, The Third Man did this one. It’s not as daringly composed as the earlier film, but it’s great to look at, and really with what’s being depicted, the baroque architecture, the glorious costumes (Julius’ gilded armor is particularly memorable to me – you can see it a few times in the trailer), you really don’t need camera tricks and fancy lighting. Reed wisely stands back and lets the larger than life subject matter (and actors) do all the work.

Best bit of Dialogue:

The most famous exchange is the often repeated one where Julius constantly demands ‘When will you make an end?’ as the ceiling becomes more and more complex and Michaelangelo always replies simply ‘When I’m finished.’

My personal favorite has always been the solliloquy by Heston when the Countess de Medici (the criminally underused Diane Cilento) hints at her love to him and he confesses his inability to reciprocate. I think I was at the perfect stage in my life to hear this.

Michaelangelo: There’s no room in me for love. Maybe there never was. I’ve wondered about that. In Bologna there was a woman. A courtesan. Beautiful. I was attracted to her, I made love to her, even wrote a sonnet to her. It was a poor thing. The words meant nothing because she meant nothing. Nothing at all. Less than nothing. It left me empty. After that I prayed. I prayed for understanding. Maybe God crippled me with a purpose as He does often. The bird’s weak, he gives it wings. The  deer’s helpless, He made it swift. He made Homer blind but let him see the world more clearly than any other man. He gave me the power to create, to fashion my own kind only here. (holds up his hands) In these. To other men he gives warm houses, children, laughter. To me…

Countess: A house without love? A monastery?

Michaelangelo: No. No filled with love, but a different kind. You don’t believe what I’m telling you.

Countess: I believe that you think what you say is true.  I believe that you’re lonely. That you’ve made a monastery of your work. And this and your loneliness have made things seem true which are not true.

Michaelangelo: They are.

Upon my recent viewing however with almost fifteen years in between, the final exchange between Julius and Michaelangelo really jumped out at me –

Julius: You know Buoneratti, I almost let you off. Twice. When I felt sorry for you. Are you glad now that I did not?

Michaelangelo: I’m grateful.

Julius: Save your gratitude for one who deserves it. No, not I. I was ruled by another hand. As easily and skillfully as you move your brush. Strange how He works His will. Let us share pride in having been His instruments.

Michaelangelo: It’s only painted plaster, holy father.

Julius: No, my son it’s much more than that. What has it taught you, Michaelangelo?

Michaelangelo: That I am not alone.

Julius: And it has taught me that the world is not alone.

Best Scene:

It’s really two scenes that refer directly to the other.

After two years of lying on a high scaffold inhaling paint fumes, Michaelangelo’s body at last gives out on him and he collapes, nearly falling to his death and becoming bedridden. After a few months, during which Michaelangelo has been nursed in his papal apartment by the Contessina de Medici, Julius pays a visit and tells him not to worry any more about the ceiling. He intends to transfer Michaelangelo’s commission to Raphael, whom it is implied Michaelangelo has a bit of a distaste for. This motivates the previously coughing, weak Michaelangelo to spring from his bed and head straight back to work.

Later in the movie, Julius collapses at some point in the midst of his military campaigns. It’s the darkest hour, when all of Rome’s enemies are marching into Italy. Confined to bed just as Michaelangelo was, it really appears he will not rise again. He lies in state, eyes closed, with all the papal attendants lurking in the incense heavy room. Behind a curtain a priest directs a choir of sopranos in a mournful angelic dirge, apparently easing Julius’ soul to heaven.  Michaelangelo enters and goes to the pope’s bedside. They talk quietly back and forth about the situation in Rome and Michaelangelo kisses Julius’ hand and says he has come to say goodbye. He is taking his leave and returning to Florence, reasoning it is useless to continue painting with the enemy about to descend on Rome.

“Wait,” rasps Julius, as Michaelangelo gets up to leave. “You- you dare leave your work without my permission?”

“Then I ask permission of your holiness.”

“It is refused!” he hisses, his voice gaining ire. “Do you hear? You will complete your work!”

“Why should I?” Michaelangelo asks calmly, shrugging. “You haven’t completed yours, holy father.”

“Insolence!” Julius snarls, sitting up in his deathbed.

“Why don’t you take a stick to me?” Michaelangelo chides. “You did before.”

Julius throws off his covers and swings his legs out of bed, glaring at the artist.

“You will return to the Sistine Chapel or you will go to a dungeon, my son.

“Yes holy father,” Michaelangelo smirks. He turns and leaves without a look back.

Julius looks around at the fawning priests, doctors, and cardinals, all of them wide-eyed at his apparent recovery.

He glares at the priest conducting the choir. The conductor hastily waves for the boys to stop singing and then throws them into a hilariously joyful rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ as Julius gets to his feet and yells;

“What are you all doing here? Don’t you have other duties? Do you think I intended to die? Out, jackals!”

Michaelangelo is inspired.

Would I buy it again? Yes.

Next In The Queue: Alien

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