Judge Clark Douglas can relate to Michelangelo's struggles. Painting the bathroom wall was torture.
From the age of magnificence comes a new magnificence in motion pictures!
"We are harlots always peddling beauty at the doorsteps of the mighty."
Facts of the Case
Our story begins in 16th Century France. Respected artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) has been tasked with building a lavish tomb in Rome for Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady). However, the Pope soon hands Michelangelo an alternate task: painting a portrait of Christ's twelve apostles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo begins the task, but eventually grows unhappy with his work, destroys it and runs off to the mountains to seek inspiration. When he returns, he proposes a grander, more challenging project: a large-scale religious painting that will cover the entire ceiling rather than just a portion of it. The Pope reluctantly agrees, and Michelangelo begins his work. However, a combination of health problems, the physical strain of the work and struggles with artistic inspiration frequently prevent the artist from working at a greater speed. Will Michelangelo ever finish his sprawling project?
Hollywood has always had a penchant for lavish historical epics, but it could certainly be argued that the genre reached its peak in the 1960s. The decade was flooded with massive, preposterously expensive films marked by dazzling production design, indulgent running times and a general sense of large-scale pageantry. Alas, audiences finally began growing weary of such bloated productions, as an increasingly large number of these films failed to recoup their considerable budgets. In retrospect, it's easy to see how the major studio tentpoles of the '60s gave way to the leaner, scrappier productions of the '70s. While some historical epics of the era were indeed guilty of being too long and too dull, other large-scale flops were rather undeserving of their tragic box office fate. One of these was Carol Reed's The Agony and the Ecstasy, a compelling (if needlessly expensive) examination of Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel.
At its core, the story being told here is an intimate, two-character affair. It's about the contentious relationship between a temperamental artist and a pompous religious leader—their initial conflicts, their grudging respect for each other and their eventual friendship. While the film's impressive set design is really appreciated, I'm not sure audiences particularly needed stuff like the big battle scene that takes place during the first act (Julius II was Pope during an era in which Popes also functioned as military leaders). This is a small film posing as a big one, and perhaps the massive financial losses it suffered (it only made back 1/5th of its $10 million budget) would have been lessened if Reed and co. had reduced the scale a bit.
Still, the film's financial woes are a problem of the past. In the present, we're left with a fairly entertaining movie, which is surprising given that it devotes a decent portion of its running time to scenes of Charlton Heston painting. The actor brings a surprising physicality to the role of Michelangelo, emphasizing the idea that the painting of the Sistine Chapel was an extraordinary physical struggle as well as an artistic one. The character might not be particularly relatable (he spends most of his time scowling and fretting about his artistic vision), but Heston's earthy masculinity somehow manages to make the perpetually agitated character more grounded. On the flip side, Rex Harrison easily captures the Pope's no-nonsense candor, brisk charm and self-importance—it's the sort of role he could play in his sleep, but it's still a pleasure to watch him play it. The two generate an appealing odd couple chemistry, which isn't a million miles away from the sort of push/pull relationship Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole offered the previous year in Becket.
Oddly, the movie opens with a 12-minute documentary prologue, which offers a brief history of Michelangelo's life. It's an unusual choice, but a good one: it allows rest of the movie to focus specifically on the Sistine Chapel without needing to find some forced method of referencing the artist's other great works. Plus, the prologue is accompanied by a gorgeous piece of original music penned by a young Jerry Goldsmith. The ever-underrated Alex North provides the score for the rest of the film, and it's arguably one of the composer's finest works—rich, melodic, nuanced material that veers back and forth between the two emotions referenced in the film's title. Add in the impressive costumes, sets and works of art, and you've got a movie that is always a pleasure to look at and listen to even when the story starts meandering.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (Blu-ray) has received an exceptional 1080p/2.20:1 transfer that does a superb job of highlighting the film's rich visual design. Colors are bright and vibrant, flesh tones are natural, detail is tremendous throughout and blacks are deep. Just beautiful. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly impressive, with the Goldsmith/North music always sounding crisp and full. Dialogue is a little muffled on occasion, and there's an odd echo effect during one early scene, but otherwise I have no complaints. Sadly, supplements are limited to a pair of trailers for the film.
The Agony and the Ecstasy may have flopped at the box office, but it's an above-average historical epic that offers a satisfying blend of sturdy acting, engaging storytelling and considerable technical virtues. Recommended.
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