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Franklin J. Schaffner
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Pope Julius is eager to leave behind works by which he will be remembered. To this end he cajoles Michelangelo into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When not on the battlefield uniting Italy, the Pope nags Michelangelo to speed up his painful work on the frescoes. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
Giovanni de' Medici (Pope Leo X) is portrayed in this movie as an older man in this film, however he was only in his 30s when the Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted and only 37 when elected Pope. See more »
Harrison steals the show in an overblown movie with terrific sets
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Coming with the American rush to "love art" in the 1950s and 60s (including the famous visit of the real Mona Lisa to America by boat), "The Agony and the Ecstasy" is a touchstone of how to make a hero of an artist and make him or her human, too. That's the key, you know--the artist has to be ribald and earthy but also transcendent, almost beyond his knowing.
That's the flawed paradigm at work here. We learn nothing about how Michelangelo's art was made--how it was painted. Nor how it was devised or inspired--the image of God in the clouds doesn't cut it for me. And we actually learn nothing about the real man--Charlton Heston's interpretation is fair enough, I suppose, but it's really just the necessary cliché of a talented (handsome) man tossed around by forced bigger than him.
What is supposed to drive the movie, and in a way saves it as a piece of entertainment, is the presence of the penny-pinching Pope, played by Rex Harrison (of "My Fair Lady" and "Julius Caesar" fame). His haranguing about the ceiling is blithe and fun. And Heston's complaining as he creates his masterpiece (with plaster dripping on his face--actually pudding in the shoot) is a foil for the Pope more than anything. Oddly, the Pope is a stronger character than the artist, and if history is at all right, we get the sense it was the other way around.
What is terrific about the movie is the set--a replica of the Sistine Chapel in a nearby movie studio. They gave them freedom to shoot it in all different phases of the painting, with and without scaffolding, night and day, and it's pretty marvelous to see it unfold in a way not so far from what must have been the truth.
Another bit of truth snuck in during these last days of the Hays Code: when someone comes looking for Michelangelo in the whore house, the prostitute goes hysterical laughing because, of course, he would never be found there. The artist was gay, and the world knew it then and knows it now, and the filmmakers get a clever wink in.
Another highlight is the incredible marble quarry in Carrara, a real place with what really is the best (seamless, pure, easily sculpted) marble in the world. Lucky it was nearby ancient and Renaissance Rome, both.
Don't avoid this movie at all, but don't expect anything truly penetrating. It's aggrandizing, it's formulaic, it's well filmed, and Harrison is in great form. But director Carol Reed ("The Third Man") chickened out a bit in a chance to push the boundaries a little harder.
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