Sunday 3 May 2020

Movie Review: The Agony And The Ecstasy (1965)

A historical drama about the creation of one of the world's most famous artefacts, The Agony And The Ecstasy lacks subtlety but overflows with admirable passion.

The film opens with a 12 minute documentary about Michelangelo's rise from humble beginnings in Florence to celebrated status as the leading sculptor of the Renaissance era. The story then starts in Rome of the early 1500s, with Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) working on a commission for Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) to create 40 sculptures for the Pope's future mausoleum.

The Pope is leading his armies in battles to unify various restless regions under the papal flag. He switches Michelangelo's attention to the Sistine Chapel, requesting ceiling paintings of the twelve apostles. Michelangelo is hesitant and uninspired, insisting he is a sculptor and not a painter. After starting the work he defaces the early images and abandons the commission.

After a period of seclusion Michelangelo returns with a new premise to transform the chapel's ceiling with imagery related to the creation of humanity. The Pope is impressed, but the work takes a long time, again creating tension between the two men. The strain impacts the artist's health, while the Pope's wars take a turn for the worse and his supremacy is challenged.

A grand adaptation of one chapter in Irving Stone's book with a script by Philip Dunne, The Agony And The Ecstasy does not hold back on conveying a sense of art history in the making. With studio 20th Century Fox aiming for a spectacularly-scaled production, director Carol Reed is sometimes lost attempting to capture the intimate process of artistic genius creativity under widescreen, vivid colour, big-set requirements. The dubious decision to also deliver an art history lesson does not help.

And so the film rides ups and downs for 140 minutes, good intentions and a committed attitude often prevailing. The best scenes by far are the more intimate interactions between Michelangelo and Julius. The two men often infuriate each other, but a mutual respect underpins their commercial relationship, and as the film progresses something resembling a deep friendship emerges. Reed finally nails his crescendo, not in any epic shot but with the two men alone and quietly discussing the meaning of life and faith underneath the newly painted The Creation of Adam.

Earlier, the special effects team conjures up a satisfyingly spectacular sunlight-and-cloud formation to inspire the artist out of his doldrums, and Reed weaves in scenes at the Carrara quarry for eye-popping recreations of the marble extraction process.

Elsewhere the supporting cast is sidelined and underpowered. Harry Andrews features as papal architect Bramante, while Tomas Milian is up-and-coming artist Raphael, a potential rival for Michelangelo. Adolfo Celi is Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, future pope and here portrayed as the artist's father figure. The Cardinal's daughter Contessina Antonia (Diane Cilento) is a smart and resourceful but half-hearted love interest.

The overall historical context is also patchy. Julius II is known as the Warrior Pope, and the film features several scenes of battle preparations and brief skirmishes. But beyond vague references to tensions with France, cities in rebellion and enemies circling Rome, Dunne and Reed are uninterested in further expounding on the causes behind the War of the League of Cambrai.

The Agony And The Ecstacy takes its title to heart. The emotions are often overheated, the arguments loud and impassioned, admiration and fury separated by thin margins. In this imagining of timeless art under gestation, there are no half measures.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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