Carol Reed’s The Agony and The Ecstasy dramatizes the relationship between Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti and Pope Julius II, who commissioned the sculptor/painter to create among other works the frescos adorning the Sistine Chapel ceiling. My interest piqued when I read Charlton Heston portrays Michelangelo. The idea of a 20th-century symbol of virility portraying a 16th-century symbol of artistry seemed too fantastic to pass up. To be fair Heston had already portrayed Moses, John the Baptist, and Ben-Hur for which he won an Academy Award. Yet his casting in all of these films seems misguided; his melodramatic stoicism and roughhewn voice are pure post-war Americana. His image is on par with Reagan, The Duke and The Marlboro Man; synonymous with American manhood.
Heston is none the wiser; he tackles Michelangelo with raspy bravado offset by Rex Harrisson’s portrayal of Pope Julius II who, while stern and determined, moves with a bit of whimsy and sarcasm. In many ways he plays the foil to Heston’s Michelangelo. They encounter a number of issues along the way: the Pope’s dislike of the artist’s process, the artist’s dislike of the Pope’s demands and constant threats of dismissal. War with Venice, Michelangelo’s platonic romance with Contessina de'Medici, and the looming presence of Raphael—portrayed with flamboyance to confirm Michelangelo’s hyper-masculinity—all exacerbate these paper-thin tensions.
The major problem with this film is the ostentatious acting illuminates the plot’s weaknesses. In one scene as Michelangelo attempts to interrupt a conversing Pope, the Pope brushes him off; the artist responds in toddler-like fashion by folding his arms and huffing. A few scenes later Michelangelo spills paint from the scaffold into the Pope’s path; the Pope responds with pursed lips, a clenched fist, and ‘why-I-oughta’ look of frustration. The ham outweighs the intellect in a film with such dramatic and historically significant subject matter.
Director Carol Reed, who co-wrote the script with Phillip Dunne based on Irving Stone’s historical novel of the same name, fails to craft a movie worthy of the source material. Stone spent close to a decade in Italy studying translations and the art of sculpture in order to create as authentic a story as possible. Reed’s film appears to be molded on an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, opening with a 15-minute documentary-style sequence of Michelangelo’s work. Reed’s use of light and shadow accentuate the details of some of the artist’s most well-known pieces such as David or The Genius of Victory, but the didactic narration is stifling and transitions awkwardly into the feature film. Equally awkward is 20th Century Fox’s retaining of the five-minute intermission—a completely black screen set to Alex North’s Academy Award-nominated swelling score. The saving grace is Reed’s ability to capture both the detail and scope of Michelangelo’s creations, aided along by a combination of on location shooting and staged sets creating fluidity in an otherwise static film.
These days the great debate in movies is the theatrical transition from film to digital projectors, the presumption being studios will do away with shooting on film. Released here on Blu-ray, The Agony and The Ecstasy is one of a slew of films under 20th Century Fox's "Studio Classics" banner and makes the case for film in the digital era. The restoration of older works via modern technology adds vibrancy and depth and suggests room for both formats in modern cinema. Formats are mere tools for the filmmakers, an aesthetic choice each artist makes, as it is for restoration. A format’s history reflects the limits of the industry and not heresy against a sacred form. Digital does not cheapen the experience, it only changes it. Adaptation then rests solely on the creator’s shoulders. In dusting films off from the sands of time the dirt and scratches are smoothed over and new life breathed into these works. The choice then is no longer aesthetic, but rather what films are deserving of the treatment. I am just not sure how this one made the cut.