The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) Dir. Carol Reed

I revisited Agony and The Ecstasy last night.  To be honest, I wish I had revisited it through a blu ray or restored DVD as opposed to Netflix streaming, where the image looked fairly pixilated at times, which definitely took away from the grand spectacle of the film.  This is definitely a film to see with crystal clarity, because there is some epic imagery, some terrific matte painting shots, and an grand sense of scope (Someday in my life I hope to see this on the big screen).  One of the things that was fascinating to me was that the interior of the Sistine Chapel was replicated on a soundstage.  While they used tricks and lenses to make the chapel appear bigger than it actually was, the set itself still must of been incredible.

The movie itself is pretty good.  Is it blasphemy to say that I think this film is only pretty good?  It’s a pretty well admired classic.  I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorite Charlton Heston pictures, and the film did drag for me a little in a few places.  But the real heart and soul of the film is the relationship between Michelangelo (Heston) and Pope Julius (Rex Harrison), the warrior pope, who in the midst of battle commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel.  Michelangelo protests, claiming that he did not want to paint and that his first love was sculpting (he was already working on carving the statues for the Pope’s tomb before being assigned to the chapel).  The relationship between these two men is complex and fascinating.  Julius is always berating Michelangelo for his insolence, as the two constantly argue.  But there are two scenes in particular that stand out as highlights.  The first is after Michelangelo makes his first attempt at painting the ceiling, only to feel furiously limited by the assignment, he rips at the plaster of the ceiling and throws a bucket of red paint over his work.  The Pope is not happy about this of course, but then comes the point where Michelangelo outlines his own idea for what the ceiling should be.  He meets the Pope in the middle of a battlefield and lays out a huge drawing for the Pope and shows him with the excitement only an artist could have for his inspiration, as he outlines the entire story of creation to the Last Supper on the ceiling.  The Pope finds himself intrigued and allows him to carry out his vision.

Of course, this leads to several battles of ego, as the Pope always enters the chapel while Michelangelo is working, saying, “When will you make an end?”, to Michelangelo’s response, “When I am finished.”  The Pope winds up defending Michelangelo’s vision against angry Cardinal’s who are shocked at the blasphemy of paintings of nude figures on the ceiling of the church.  But the most poignant scene is a moment where Michelangelo finds Pope Julius up on the scaffolding with a candle, trying to understand, and in a kind of understated way, admiring what Michelangelo has done.  “Is this how you truly see God?”  He asks.  “Not as someone out to judge us?  You don’t see god holding humanity with disdain?”  He is referring to the image of God touching the finger of Adam.  He looks at the painting in marvel as Michelangelo interprets Adam, the beginning of all humanity, as something beautiful.  Julius is a constant antagonist in many ways, and its easy to see how his Warrior Pope personality rubs off on others, but for all the aggrivation, its as if Michelangelo has giving him a personal moment of understanding through his painting…of making his own humanity a little clearer.

Rex Harrison is really the star performer here and gives an incredible performance.  While Charlton Heston is good here as Michelangelo, I found his performance to be a lot more passive than what I expected.  I remembered this film being very different when I saw it many many years ago, as I remembered the Pope and Michelangelo being two titan egos exploding on screen.  I guess that’s where I found myself only slightly disappointed.  But Heston is still good in this.

I suppose the one thing I felt was a little dull and frustrating to sit through were the scenes exploring Michelangelo’s sexuality and his relationship with Contessina di’Medici.  I don’t know the full story about Michelangelo’s sexuality, about whether or not he was gay, but because the nature of his sexuality was so hazy to me, I just felt these scenes were a little ponderous to sit through, because in the back of my mind this wasn’t an area of his life they could fully explore.  As most people know in 1965 homosexuality was still a fairly taboo subject for films.  This was changing of course during the period of the late 60’s and 70’s.  But homosexuals before this time were often regulated to broad caricatures or villains, but also never spoken of.  So in The Agony and The Ecstasy, there was no place they could really go in developing this side of Michelangelo.  I suppose part of it was the need for a female lead character in the film (I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how important a part Contellina played), but the movie works better when it sticks to the relationship between the Pope and Michelangelo.

I was glad to revisit this film, even if I was slightly disappointed.  There were several great things to admire about the film, particularly the scope of the visuals (I couldn’t count how many matte paintings they had to do in recreating the Vatican City).  And of course, Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston are great together.  I also can’t write this review without mentioning the tremendous score by Alex North (with from what I heard some assistance from Jerry Goldsmith).  I especially loved the 12 minute prologue to the film, which goes into the background of Michelangelo’s art.  And the opening helicopter shot of St. Peter’s Dome is just incredible.  If you’ve never seen this film, it’s definitely worth a look.        

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