In hindsight, director, Carol Reed’s postwar period was not particularly well served. Like fellow Brit David Lean, Reed had begun his career producing what Lean would later coin ‘little gems’; character-driven dramas of quality and substance. Also like Lean, Reed would migrate from these intimate sagas to more lavishly appointed entertainments. However, unlike Lean, who graduated from his ‘little gems’ phase to become the éminence grise of the roadshow epic throughout the 1960's, in retrospect Reed’s specialty remained the ‘little gem’; hard-edged tales of humanity, occasionally rising from its mire. If we take Reed’s The Third Man (1949) as the absolute peak of his career, then his post-war projects steadily reveal themselves as elephantiasis-stricken roadshow experiments, the biggest transgressor of the lot, the Oscar-winning transmutation of Lionel Bart’s OIiver! (1968). While Oliver! has its supporters, in hindsight, it is rather graceless and predictable; buoyed by starry performances and, of course, Bart’s unforgettable score; also, justly renowned for its evocative recreations of Dickensian London. Yet, the picture never entirely comes together as it should; the flavor of the piece somewhat throttled by Reed’s own inability to grapple with the excesses at his disposal. The very same affliction plagues Reed's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).
In hindsight – which is always 20/20 - the most impressive aspect of The Agony and the Ecstasy is its frequent verbal clashes between telescopically concentrated artist extraordinaire, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (a rather petulant, Charlton Heston) and the exceedingly caustic ‘warrior Pope’, Julius II (played with sustained magnificence and feisty determination by Rex Harrison). Whenever this powerhouse twosome is on the screen, their altercations crackle with a palpable and delicious ferocity; each actor pushing the other to invest more of himself into his characterization. Even so, one cannot help but think The Agony and The Ecstasy might have played better as a ‘little gem’ than a roadshow – the movie’s dramatic arc almost exclusively concentrated on these passionate exchanges, minus the extemporaneous accoutrements that surround, and occasionally, intrude on the story.
Despite John DeCuir’s admirable recreations of renaissance Italy – or perhaps, because of them - the rest of the movie lacks the wherewithal to impress, though ‘impress’ it most certainly tries; the screenplay (co-written by Reed and Philip Dunne) meandering through a bit of well-researched, if incomprehensibly turgid backstory about these larger-than-life personages – also, a bit of history lavishly reproduced by ‘master builder’ production designer, John DeCuir and luminously photographed with exacting precision by crabby cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. In 70mm, The Agony and The Ecstasy is an undeniably handsome movie to observe, like watching a series of moving frescoes; DeCuir and Shamroy conspiring to ladle one opulent moment upon the next; a steady stream of stunningly composed images to fill every inch of the expansive Todd A-O screen. To be sure, this is an A-list roadshow built like a tank. Tragically, it occasionally lumbers across the screen like one too; blundering rather than thundering into Irving Stone’s biographical gravitas.
Despite The Agony and the Ecstasy’s many virtues, one of the fundamental deficiencies of cinema language has always been its inability to convey thoughts and ideals clearly, concisely, or even convincingly in concrete terms. The inner workings of the human mind simply do not lend themselves to picture form, except in clumsy flashbacks. But Stone’s biography is about two men who are deep thinkers deeply divided in their aspirations, ambitions and sexual proclivities, perhaps, but intuitively drawn to each other’s unrelenting thirst to see a single project (the painting of the Sistine Chapel) through to completion. While there is little to suggest one way or the other Michelangelo was a homosexual, there is substantial evidence (including rather graphic love poems written in the artist’s hand to both sexes) to intimate he was bisexual. Alas, the stance of the Catholic Church on human sexuality – particularly in the 14th and 15th century – was hardly liberal-minded and/or forgiving. Artists were absolved of open criticism for their ‘preferences’ – particularly when commissioned by the archdiocese; their private lives taken at face value as par for the course of their divinely inspired genius. What they did with those hands in their spare time was their own business. Besides, Stone’s biography on which the movie is based is not a critique of Buonarroti - the man; rather, Michelangelo, as sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer of the High Renaissance. Carol Reed’s adaptation is no less reverent in this admiration; choosing to open with a rather lengthy ‘art history lesson’ prologue; Shamroy’s camera doing 360 degree rotations around some of the master’s most iconic sculptures.
This being Hollywood of a particularly glamorous and homophobic vintage, The Agony and the Ecstasy endeavors to concoct a more vigorous and butch persona for Michelangelo, beginning with he-manly Charlton Heston cast to play him. To a point and this particular purpose – it is inspired casting, and it works exceptionally well for the verbal jousting between Heston’s embittered artisan and Rex Harrison’s thundering Julius II. But Heston’s Buonarroti is a man of brawn, unable to convey a more exquisite, painterly purpose oozing from within. He lacks the artist’s intuitiveness and sensitivity. All his Michelangelo can do is to gaze with vacant awe at the magisterial frescoes his painter’s brush has wrought, seemingly without his influence. One could imagine this Michelangelo tearing to pieces Rex Harrison’s intellectual Pope in a fist fight; the suppression of such primal urges translated instead, by Heston, into panged expressions and many a clenched fist along the way. Heston lets the disappointment show – also, the tortured vexations of his soul. But he neither builds upon these awkward frustrations nor casts them out to his character’s satisfaction. Even upon completion of the chapel’s ceiling, one is distinctly aware Heston’s artist would rather have spent his waking hours buying limes in the market place. He gives us the agony with none of the ecstasy appended.
By contrast, Rex Harrison’s performance remains the flashier of the two; full of fire and music – the true believer – or is it heretic? – a Papal martyr committed to some very bloody battles in God’s name. Harrison’s own bravura carries the picture, even as it clouds the historical record. When the plot threatens to plunge into abject tedium, the grander gestures of Harrison’s defiant saint rescues the audience from boredom; the actor’s affectations, his obvious command of the English language and growling austerity ignite the screen in tortuous monologues. Yet these never once seem strained or pontificating. It is impossible to look away when Rex Harrison is on the screen; a rare star quality. Conversely, The Agony and the Ecstasy founders when Heston’s artist and Harrison’s deity are allowed their brief respites from one another; particularly Heston’s scenes with Adolfo Celi (herein, miscast as the benevolent Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici) or Diane Cilento (the Contessina de'Medici) – a sort of faux love interest, though not really.
For a roadshow clocking in at 138 minutes, complete with unnecessary intermission, The Agony and the Ecstasy is rather sparsely populated. There are no subplots to speak of and no intrigues either. Arguably, suspense is not the point of this exercise. Rather, director Carol Reed wants his audience to feel the gravity in Michelangelo’s purpose; his artistic forbearance pushed to the breaking point by a papal edict he can neither ignore nor satisfy while remaining true to his own higher artistic principles. This struggle to rectify an artist’s vision with the assignment as decreed represents the ‘agony’ in the title, the ‘ecstasy’ derived from Julius’ unlikely acquiescence to Michelangelo’s revised interpretations for the chapel’s ceiling by the story’s end. Still, it is rather difficult to get excited about a plot where one protagonist spending the bulk of his time lying flat on his back, compressed between rickety plywood scaffolding and the arched ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while the other immoveable object, Pope Julius, bellows orders and/or his displeasure from ground level. Somehow, Carol Reed manages to avert most of the pitfalls in this impossible separation. We are never completely bored with any of it; just marginally disappointed the movie does not evolve into anything more ambitious as the minutes tick away.
Yet, star power prevails on this occasion. The allure of Heston and Harrison sustains and nourishes as only two genuine talents of a certain caliber are able. Each actor makes the audience a witness to his testament and gives us something more meaningful to invest in and appreciate. By the movie’s penultimate moment of reconciliation, as Michelangelo realizes his benefactor will not live to witness the many great works yet to follow, we cannot help but be genuinely touched by their mutual unsaid affection for each other. It is almost Shakespearean in tone and very bittersweet (always the best kind); a sort of ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ finale for these two titanic figures who, at times, found each other mostly contemptible, though necessary evils to fulfill their own ambitions.
The Agony and The Ecstasy begins with a lengthy art history lesson on the works of Michelangelo; critiques of the exquisite hand-carved marble statuary for which he is undoubtedly famous. It is an awkward narrative device used to regress in time; providing context and backstory perhaps, though in a decidedly uncreative and terribly heavy-handed way. The movie’s prologue runs almost eleven minutes, including overture and main titles; the latter played over a montage at a rock quarry as large blocks of marble are detonated loose from a mountainside near Rome. Securing this newly mined marble to an ox-driven cart, the procession of laborers is interrupted by a rather tepidly staged battle sequence. Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) drives rebel forces back with a majestic wave of his sword, sparing no one. Victorious, Julius reenters the city gates, begrudgingly serenaded by a choir on the steps of St. Peters. The crowds who have gathered to witness this triumph are sparse at best, and decidedly unenthusiastic. Within historical context, this much is true. Julius’ expenditures on St. Peter’s construction, and his status as ‘the warrior Pope’, were then viewed as highly suspicious – if not, entirely unethical. Italy’s citizenry had come to resent the chronic tax hikes and other institutionalized fees imposed over many generations – a miserly collection of gratuities lavishly spent to elevate the sophistication of the papal court. The ‘glory’ of Rome rarely had any trickle-down effect; the feudal system overseen by landlords and princes growing increasingly indignant about being forced to tithe.
One such bystander is Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charlton Heston), commissioned to sculpt the statuary that will adorn Julius’ rather ornate tomb. This mausoleum will be the centerpiece of the newly constructed St. Peter’s. However, almost immediately Michelangelo and the Pope’s architect, Bramante (Harry Andrews) debate the importance of each other’s contributions; the latter charging Michelangelo with shameless vanity, exploiting a commission in search of his own artistic immortality, under the guise of providing Julius with his everlasting tribute. To some extent this is, of course, true. For Michelangelo is a craftsman enraptured by his art. This becomes clearer still after Michelangelo arrives at the papal court, only to be informed by Julius he has decided to delay their plans indefinitely. Julius has another assignment for Michelangelo, however; to redecorate the rather uninspired architecture of the Sistine Chapel with likenesses of the twelve Apostles and other depictions from the Holy Scriptures.
Michelangelo is deeply wounded by this new assignment. He considers himself a sculptor first; a painter, a distant second. Electing to sneak out of Rome rather than accept the commission, Michelangelo first attends the house of his benefactor, Giovanni de' Medici (a badly dubbed Adolfo Celi). The Medici name is sacred in Rome, Giovanni wielding considerable influence in Julius’ court. Giovanni had taken in Michelangelo as something of an adopted son after the death of his own father. Herein, the Philip Dunne screenplay toys with the implausibility Michelangelo once loved (and possibly had an affair with) the Cardinal’s sister, Contessina (Diane Cilento), who is a married woman, though her husband spends a good deal of his time abroad on business.
Michelangelo informs both Giovanni and Contessina of his plans to leave Rome immediately for a commission already offered him by the Sultan of Turkey. It is a generous offer. Empathetic to his artistic temperament, Giovanni cannot deny Michelangelo his decision, even as it will undoubtedly have repercussions for the Medici household in Rome. But Contessina has no compunction about telling her former lover exactly what she thinks of him, disdainfully adding “Do as will, Michelangelo…you always have.” Begrudgingly, Michelangelo must admit to being selfish, accepting Julius’ commission to improve upon his own virtue. But almost immediately he enters into heated disagreements with Bramante over the installation of cumbersome concave scaffolding, supported from holes created in the chapel’s ceiling. Julius intercedes, agreeing with Michelangelo to erect a scaffolding of his own design; one that will not touch the ceiling. Not long thereafter, work begins as Michelangelo and his skilled apprentices sketch out the towering figures of divinity on paper first.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is exceedingly meticulous in illustrating the laborious process by which such drawings are transferred, first into rough outlines; then, finished frescoes onto the curved surfaces of the Sistine Chapel. The movie is also rather zealous in its documentation of life at court; revealing the dichotomous relationship between the artist – prone to frequenting bars and brothels of the lower class, even as he hobnobs with the cultured literati within the papal court. What gets lost in this shuffle is a far more fascinating back story about the Basilica of St. Peters; first erected by Emperor Constantine in the early 14th century, but having fallen into a perilous state of disrepair by the time the plot of this movie gets underway. In retrospect, The Agony and the Ecstasy is a document about the end of an era; the penultimate flourish of the Italian Renaissance, rife with spiritual crises, tumult and conflict brewing from within, ultimately leading to a reformation of the church. Julius had a fairly ambitious notion to protect and enlarge the Papal States. But he also heavily mortgaged the construction of the new St. Peters via the sale of dispensations to various archbishops. These ‘sales’ were disguised as ‘taxes’ – one made to Albrecht of Brandenburg who became the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, and received generous allowances from Julius as his compensation. To repay the loans, Julius granted Albrecht papal permission to ‘Preach the Indulgence’. The monetary gains were divided between funding for St. Peters and remunerations made to the bankers who had given Julius the tax money borrowed by Albrecht in the first place: a very chummy arrangement, indeed.
None of this backstory appears in the movie. Instead, the latter half of The Agony and The Ecstasy is a compelling critique of its two immovable objects – Julius and Michelangelo – each coming to grips with their respective lots in life; discovering, almost by accident, the ‘ecstasy’ brought forth by their conflicted admiration and acrimony. After destroying his own hard-begun depiction of the twelve apostles, Michelangelo eludes the Pope’s guard and escapes to the nearby mountains where he is ultimately inspired by an even greater vision to serve his purpose. Returning to Rome a changed man, Michelangelo convinces Julius to grant him a commission that will re-envision the entire chapel from ground to ceiling. It is a most ambitious project. Reluctantly, Julius agrees, sensing Michelangelo’s new-found commitment will perhaps hasten the completion of the work. Alas, the labor of love now proceeds at an excruciatingly slow and meticulous pace; the weeks turning into months and eventually years.
Michelangelo is accused of blasphemy and heresy by the Cardinals for his depictions of Pagan symbols and mythology in place of steadfast religious icons. But Julius allows Michelangelo’s vision to prevail and the work continues. Regrettably, Michelangelo is stricken by temporary blindness – an ill-effect from the toxicity of his paint. While convalescing, Julius is goaded to expedite the completion of the chapel; the commission given to Michelangelo’s competition, Raphael (Tomas Milian). Awestruck by the otherworldly inspiration behind these creations, Raphael pleads with Michelangelo to finish the job himself. For, it is truly inspired and only one man can see it through to completion.
Regrettably, the city is threatened on all sides by French and German forces. Julius, whose patience has worn thin with Michelangelo, orders the scaffolding torn down and the commission handed over to Raphael. But Contessina now intercedes on her former lover’s behalf, imploring Michelangelo to pursue Julius until his commission is renewed. Julius is wounded on the battlefield and taken back to the city where he judges Michelangelo’s famed depiction of the finger of God touching man as too serene. Nevertheless, Julius and Michelangelo are now allied in a singular cause and are of one mindset, even as Julius, bed-ridden and ailing, denies repeated requests from his clergy to put an end to the ceiling’s completion. The finished frescos are revealed to the congregation for the first time shortly before mass. But Michelangelo’s request to complete the lower walls is denied by Julius who, sensing that his time on earth is fleeting, implores Michelangelo to finish work on his tomb instead, and, with all speed.
If nothing else, then The Agony and the Ecstasy tantalizes us with these two formidable forces from the Italian Renaissance; one destined to quietly fade into obscurity, the other meant for eternal exaltation. The movie is a rather weighty epitaph, its overriding funereal tone only occasionally salvaged by Rex Harrison’s bombastic bellowing and Charlton Heston’s defiant objections to him. These are treasured talents committing themselves to some of the finest work in their respective careers. While the movie lacks an overall dramatic impetus to distinguish it as a great cinematic epic, there is nothing to diffuse the intensity emanating from either actor, particularly when both are on the screen at once. Thankfully, The Agony and The Ecstasy affords Harrison and Heston many opportunities to feed off each other’s creative energies and impressive talents – as awe-inspiring even, perhaps, as the Sistine Chapel itself, and, a stimulating combination on the screen, yielding many fine moments throughout.
If only Carol Reed’s directorial approach had borne something greater than a series of static shots, then The Agony and the Ecstasy might have truly satisfied. Instead, Reed seems stifled by the vast expanses of the Todd A-O frame – afraid even, to venture beyond its ability to showcase the glamorous sets and costumes. The movie is undeniably sumptuous in its vibrant and lusty Mediterranean palette. Yet, setting aside this lushness, the camera never discovers interesting ways to augment or explore the spectacle; most scenes played in two shot with actors hitting their marks in a very perfunctory way, instead of the camera reframing to follow them and thus heighten and/or punctuate the action, tempo and mood. In the final analysis, The Agony and the Ecstasy gets locked into a sort of moving tableau of cinema stagecraft - not a motion picture - and this is a shame. And yet it is impossible to dismiss the movie outright as just another clunky sixties roadshow escapism. The performances are just so good. And there is prestige to consider too; not only in the movie’s monumental undertaking (the condensing of decades into less than three hours) but also in the ambitiousness on the part of Carol Reed to even attempt such a cerebral excavation in visual terms. Despite its abysmal performance at the box office, The Agony and the Ecstasy is not a flop. Rather, it is a movie of merits and qualities rarely seen – then or now.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is – in a word - astounding. This is 1080p done right, and we tip our hats to Schawn Belston and the remastering wizards behind what can only be described as an absolute resurrection of this movie’s visual integrity. Wow- doesn’t begin to describe the results. Not since Fox’s own costly restoration of The Robe (1954) has there been a more dramatic turnabout. What was once a gaudy overly saturated and not terribly refined image in standard def is now a breathtaking, reference quality representation on Blu-ray, extolling all of the innate virtues of its original Todd A-O roadshow presentation. You are going to LOVE this disc. Colors have been properly balanced and saturated, with natural flesh tones (always a good barometer to start with) that are truly a revelation. Fine detail absolutely pops, even in long shot. The image all but achieves a third-dimensional quality in close-ups. Hair, skin, fabrics, foliage et al are breathtaking. Contrast is superior to anything we have seen before on home video for this catalog release. Also exported; a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced. Fox has outdone themselves on this transfer. They are to be commended to the rafters for it.
The DTS 5.1 audio remains just a wee less convincing, lacking bass tonality. Still, I cannot remember this movie ever sounding better; Alex North’s superb underscore coming to life as never before. If there is a flaw to consider, it is that Fox has not entertained us with an audio commentary or ‘making of’ featurette to complement the movie. We won’t poo-poo it any further, because the remastering effort is absolutely perfect. A+ and everyone should be supporting this disc with a show of sales. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)