Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Make that mostly Agony….

If, at this late date, we come to the inescapable conclusion that movie-making is not only an art, but an art of considerable alchemy and artistry, we must also come to the conclusion that most filmmakers can not use that art to make movies about art.  Nearly every film about our significant painters, composers, sculptors and actors are sad affairs – either pompous with a feigned “significance,” or so self-consciously “arty” as to become ridiculous.

One of the most egregious offenders is Carol Reed’s 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the sparring between Renaissance master Michelangelo and Pope Julius II during the painting of the Sistine Ceiling – one of the most significant achievements in the history of art.

It is precisely because of that significance that Reed, usually a deft and gifted filmmaker, failed so miserably.  Because here was a story of importance and significance, by gum, and nearly everyone involved was so busy posing with importance and significance that they all forgot to make a movie that was human, moving and alive.

The problems start with the source material.  Michelangelo would be a magnificent subject for a film if movie-makers were not cowed by his lofty reputation and wanted to say something significant about this brilliant, difficult, conflicted man.  But screenwriters Reed and Philip Dunne (1908-1992) decided instead to adapt Irving Stone’s (1903-1989) utterly puerile and unreadable book of the same name instead.  To their credit, they jettison much of Stone’s material and try to craft an original screenplay, but the rot had already set in.

Add to that calamity the casting of Charlton Heston (1923-2008) as Michelangelo.  Perhaps the finest looking and sounding bad actor in the history of cinema, a role like Michelangelo demanded subtleties that were beyond Heston.  He sure looked fine in a beard and artist’s rags, but once he opened his mouth to emote, the effect was ruined.  A dull pall of earnestness squeezes his performance of any juice it might have had, and one longs for just that touch of ham Heston exhibited in less demanding roles.

Heston is not helped at all by the film’s conception of Michelangelo.  After making a decorous claim that our hero is not homosexual (“no, not that,” he says, nodding at one of his drawings of a male nude), they also render him strangely neuter by saddling him with a sexless romance with Diane Cilento (1933-2011) – as the Contessina de Medici, yet!   So, poor Heston is forced to mope around the wonderful Sistine Chapel sets, or look at the fresco recreations by painter Niccolo d’Ardia Caracciolo and mummer banalities about the hand of God and whatnot. 

What Heston does have going for him, aside from a classically handsome look and a fine voice, is that remarkable ability to be acceptable as a figure from the past.  His most significant roles – Michelangelo, Moses, Ben-Hur, General Gordon – were all figures of a dim and romantic past; it would be inconceivable to cast one of his contemporaries, say Paul Newman, and get away with it.

Other supporting players do not help.  Adolfo Celi (1922-1986) is a reptilian Giovanni de Medici, but the most egregious turn is Harry Andrews (1911-1989) as the great architect Bramante (1444-1514), playing with all the subtlety of an Agatha Christie red herring in a provincial rep company.  I couldn’t help thinking that if Michelangelo ended up with a knife in his back, Harry Andrews did it.

How could Reed, who made such wonderful films as Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949), been responsible for such a flaccid mess? 

Well, the good news is that the film is not a complete mess.  Sharing nearly equal screen time with Heston is the divine Rex Harrison (1908-1990) as Pope Julius.  Harrison was simply the finest light comic actor of his (or any other) generation, and his casting as the Pope is a stroke of genius.  Though a straight, dramatic role, Harrison infuses the Pope with all of his customary charm and Shavian wit.  Indeed, the first scene pitting the Pope against the Artist is all weighted in God’s favor simply by the delight we have watching Harrison twinkle from behind his designer robes.  Harrison dances throughout the entire film on the balls of his feet, and if a contemporary Pope had that much devilish esprit, it would be enough to interest me in religion.

The Agony and the Ecstasy opens with a brief voice-over narration talking about Michelangelo and his works:  surely something more necessary today than in 1965.  The film was also lavishly shot in Cinemascope and Todd-AO; it was a wonderful picture to look at, if not watch.   Somehow it was nominated for five Academy Awards.  It won none.


Anonymous said...

You are correct in that the best parts of this hulking film are the interactions between Harrison and Heston but we must be gentle in our memory of it though I agree the pseudo-romance between Michelangelo and Contessina are quite awkward not because of its impossibility but because of the lame execution (attributed to the writers).

We can fortunately see without apology the warrior-who-would-be-king in Julius II but he is depicted, thankfully, reasonably. Though more devil than divine missionary, he is well formed as a pragmatic realist who tends the business of the day (as it would have been at that particular time in history). I am thankful for this as we tend to see the Catholic Church unreasonably vilified out of context and very gratuitous to have had Harrison tempering the blade. He may be a sort of co-star or even a supporting role to Heston’s character, but he is the focus of the film and steals the limelight.

The best scene in the film may actually be when Michelangelo informs the dying Harrison of his intention to leave the ceiling uncompleted (for the umpteenth time). Nearly comatose, Julius rises from his deathbed by shear will and anger alone to command the chapel work be finished, ready to strike the painter [again] for his continual stubborn disobedience. Much to the horror of the somber choir and attendants in the room, the pope begins a holy tantrum banishing them from his bed chamber half crazed. The frantic musical set change by the choir leader is one of the best moments in all of cinema!

Towards the end of the film Michelangelo is still Michelangelo though perhaps a bit more tame though not a shred more humble. We are given a bit of sensitive personal access with Julius as it is revealed to us his own self-realization of his eternal damnation. He admits to the artist that he has acted more anti-pope than Holy Father and will pay severely in the afterlife. He can only wonder at Michelangelo’s final product, a depiction of an all-loving and forgiving God. [The Church had been promoting this view of the lord for quite some time and the filmmakers seem to avoid the academic nature of figures like St. Augustine.]

As the crowds marvel at the completed work, just as they do in reality (having been lucky to count myself among them) we are left with a final thought that no matter how dismal our fate is or may seem to be, there is good to be found in the pursuit of truthfulness through beauty. We cannot ignore the importance of this fact, as long as there are those among us who continue to seek it out, humanity will be able to retain a sense of purpose, of culture, moral relevance and even justification for our survival as a species. It is really, after all, the only thing which truly separates us from the brutality of war and the lives of bestiality we so often sadly and willingly partake.

James Abbott said...

Thank you for your moving, insightful thoughts. It is deep readings like yours that will drive the sense of purpose, culture and moral relevance of which you speak.