Monday, June 20, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Agony and the Ectstasy" (1965)

Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison were both booming screen presences with a decided tendency toward hamminess. They knew the taste of the scenery, and enjoyed it.

But I think both actors deliver some of their best work in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" -- a measure of restraint and disappearance into the character, as opposed to bursting out of the box as was their wont. Neither received Oscar nomination, and indeed the film in general was rather ignored during the awards season, receiving five nods from the Academy in only "technical" categories, winning none.

This, in a weaker year for film, with "The Sound of Music" winning Best Picture -- a film I've still not been able to bring myself to watch all the way through -- and the overwrought "Doctor Zhivago" and the overrated "Ship of Fools" forming its main competition.

I would put "The Agony and the Ecstasy" above them all.

It's a very good, borderline great film that takes a historical subject and muses upon the two men who made it happen: Michelangelo and Pope Julius II (played by Heston and Harrison, respectively). It falls into the category of what we now would call "historical fiction," based upon the book by Irving Stone. The story is part history, part mythology and part dramaturgy.

History is full of ironic inconsistencies. Like the Fourth Crusade, which departed to free Jerusalem from the Muslim horde but instead sacked the allied city of Constantinople. Or Joseph Cinqué, one of the slaves who fought for freedom aboard the ship Amistad later (by some accounts) becoming a slave trader himself.

Chief among fate's little jokes is that Michelangelo is probably best known for his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when in fact he labored nearly all of his life as a sculptor. The Pope insisted upon the greatest living artist decorating his chapel, despite Michelangelo's objections. This is the story of their clashing, from which emerged one of the enduring works of mankind.

Julius was known as the warrior-pope who fought many battles to keep the papal lands under Rome's control, rather than being gobbled up by the French and others. The movie depicts him literally sword in hand, wearing ornate plate armor and striking down his enemies in bloody splashes of violence. Harrison plays him as a vainglorious man given to fits of anger, but one who truly believes his mission in life is to exalt God and raise up his church.

The movie takes a little while to get really rolling. Michelangelo is working on the pope's tomb -- 40 statues, all told -- and clashing with Bramante (Harry Andrews), the pope's stiff-necked and territorial architect. Julius decides that his chapel needs some saints on the ceiling, and more or less forces the artist to do his bidding, at cut-rate wages.

There's a nice little speech that Raphael (Tomas Milian), another great artist of that age, gives about two-thirds of the way through in which he nicely describes the economics of artistry in the early 1500s. We're whores, he says, dependent on the wealthy and powerful to provide the funding to do what we are compelled to do.

Michelangelo certainly lives out this description on the film, repeatedly defying Julius only to eventually bend the knee and kiss the ring (quite literally).

His first rebellion is to start the portraits of saints, only to scrape them off the wall or ruin them with buckets of paint in a drunken fit after deciding "the wine is sour," meaning he has no creative will to do anything inspiring. After hiding out as a marble quarryman, he's struck by a vision to do a grand collection of frescoes depicting most of the pivotal acts of the Old Testament, centered by God's creation of Adam.

The image of a bearded old man reaching his hand out to Adam's is surely one of the most enduring images in the public consciousness.

Weeks become months, months become years. "When will you make an end?!?" Julius repeatedly shouts up to Michelangelo, high above the floor of the chapel on his scaffolding. "When I am finished!" the artist replies, equally thunderous. Michelangelo quits, is fired, gives up, but always returns to the task.

The film really gains steam in the third act, where first Michelangelo and then Julius are struck down by ill health -- exhaustion for the painter, war wounds for the pope. Each man is forcefully made aware of his mortality, and finds himself reaching out to the other for understanding. The dynamic of begrudged servant and domineering master slowly evolves into a pairing of mutual respect.

Director Carol Reed helmed a lot of "prestige" projects like this; he's probably best known for "The Third Man" and his Oscar-winning direction of "Oliver!". Screenwriter Philip Dunne ("How Green Was My Valley") turns in a fairly conventional but well-done piece in the "Great Man" tradition of moviemaking.

Diane Cilento has a fairly forgettable role as a matron of the Medici family, the powerful clan that controlled his hometown of Florence and first sponsored his artistry. The idea, a predictable one, is that the pair loved each other in their youth, but he chose sculpting as his expression of ardor, and she married another. Indeed, Michelangelo gives a speech in which it's made clear he essentially lives a monastic existence without sex.

Honestly, it's just an example of a very Y-chromosome movie in which the studio decided to inject a little feminine flavor.

Quibbles aside, though, I enjoyed "The Agony and the Ecstasy" a lot more than I thought it would. It's an exploration of how men accomplish great things, usually by sacrificing some large part of their personal happiness to rededicate to a noble endeavor.

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