Follow by Email

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Michelangelo Buonarroti is arguably the greatest artist who ever lived. At the outset of The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 film directed by Carol Reed, we get a brief documentary about him, seeing his "greatest hits," such as the David, Moses, and other great statuary. He never thought of himself as a painter, though, which makes his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel all the more remarkable.

The film depicts the conflict between the artist (Charlton Heston) and the Pope (Rex Harrison) who commissioned him. It's full of spectacle like many films of the period, but deep within it's an interesting story, about the nature of art. I would have preferred a more intimate film, but I still recommend it.

As the film begins, Harrison, as Julius II, returns from leading his troops in victory. Yes, this Pope is a warrior. Heston has been working on his tomb, which will contain 40 different statues. Harrison's architect, Harry Andrews, convinces him to give Heston the job of painting the barn-like Chapel, perhaps because Heston is not a painter and it will make him look bad. Heston reluctantly takes the job. He has little choice, as Harrison can do what he wants with him, including hanging him.

Heston starts by painting the twelve apostles, but is stuck and flees. He has a cheesy moment while looking into the clouds and seeing the outline of what will be "The Creation of Adam." He comes back, inspired, and slaves away on his back, getting sick. Harrison has to fight off invaders. Will the painting be finished?

Well, we all know the question to that. I've never seen the Sistine Chapel in person, but I got a nice sense of the majesty of the work, and in the creative forces behind it. Michelangelo always said that a sculpture was hiding in a piece of marble, and he was merely freeing it. In his painting, he had a mastery of anatomy and line, and as he and Harrison contemplate that most famous fresco, with Adam looking so innocent and God so benign, it's like getting a entire art course. Of course, we want our movies to be entertaining, not pedantic, and I found The Agony and the Ecstasy intellectually stimulating, if not a rousing entertainment.

Heston is his hammy self, playing yet another larger than life character. He is given a love interest (Diane Cilento), but claims he can not love, as his gift won't allow it. Harrison gives a terrific, understated performance. He's imperious as a Pope can be, but he also appreciates great art, and is committed to having Michelangelo finish the piece (Andrews pushes Raphael for the job--that would have been a difference).

If anything, The Agony and the Ecstasy has me itching to get to Italy just so I can see some of these masterpieces in person.

No comments:

Post a Comment