With Easter coming around, this also means the season of a historical epics – both in theatres and home video. Agony and the Ecstasy was one of the bigger films of its day, a 70mm showcase, telling the story of the Michelangelo and his tempestuous relationship with Pope Julius I who commissioned the surly artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As usual with this kind of the film, the superb production value carries the weight over a dull story and hammy characterizations of historical figures.
Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison
By Alan Bacchus
Charlton Heston as the supreme artist of his day, Michelangelo? Why not? Agony and the Ecstasy epitomizes Hollywood’s love affair with historical epics in the 1960’s. But as helmed by master craftsman Carol Reed (The Third Man), the film is more than a mere stock production. Reed’s fine eye for composition adds qualities missing from forgettable comparables such as Cleopatra.
As Michelangelo Buonarroti Mr. Heston thankfully makes no attempt to give his character a generic British accent. Heston is Heston, and his legacy of iconic historic figures precedes his performance. Thus, Heston, in cinematic terms, is completely believable as the Florence-born sculptor/painter. But it takes a while to introduce him. The opening segment of the film is a clever history lesson of sorts. Documentary-like footage shot in traditional documentary fashion on the history of Michelangelo’s art work. In 10 mins or so of screen time we get to see a number of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, valuable context to the dramatized events about to come. Thus when the story begins we have already appreciated Michelangelo’s mastery of the art of the stone sculpture.
Of course the story of Michelangelo/Pope Julius is about the Sistene Chapel – hiring a man from Florence to paint instead of sculpt. Julius was then known as the warring pope and is characterized as a soldier as much as he is representative of God. Rex Harrison’s introduction as the Pope follows a robust action sequence of the Pope’s warriors on horseback laying siege to a Vatican castle. Julius’ presence thus extends beyond the spritual, but an imposing figure capable of vengeance and death.
Julius’ proposal to Buonarroti (as the Pope refers to him) is something Michelangelo quietly cannot turn down, thus when tasked for something he has no passion in, creates the initial beats of conflict between the pair. After painting the first few Apostles Michelangelo destroys the works and flees the Vatican for the hills hidden from the Pope. But as Buonarroti works high atop the Carrara mountain quarrying rock, he sees his epiphany in the clouds – a celestial moment of inspiration , shapes in the clouds forming the figures he went go on to paint, including the famous Creation of Adam.
It’s a great moment of cinema, directed with maximum epic grandeur which the genre demands. When Michelangelo returns he sacrifices body and soul to perfect the ceiling and vaults of chapel despite near blindness and fatigue.
As a battle of wills, Harrison and Heston are ideal combatants. Like Heston Harrison’s career brings it’s own kind of baggage, that is legendary off screen cantankerousness which enhances the characterization of the foil to Heston’s noble work.
But it’s the visual realization of the Vatican, the Chapel and the impressive scaffolding constructed for Michelangelo to paint the ceiling which resounds loudly. Impressive matte-photography helps create the depth of field and immersive scope and the 70mm Cinemascope photography looks pristine on modern high definition televisions.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is available on Blu-Ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment