Film Flick: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Agony and Ecstasy is either an epic masquerading as a two-man character study or a two-man character study masquerading as an epic.

Telling the story of one of the world's most celebrated artistic achievements, the Agony and Ecstasy centers on the painting of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. The film is based on part of Irving Stone's novel of the same name, which in turn was based largely on Michelangelo's  own letters. Sculptor Michelangelo is coerced into working on a commission from the warrior-Pope Julius II. His task? To paint the twelve apostles against the blue ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo balks, claiming he is no painter (in real life, at the time of the commission, Michelangelo had only worked on frescos briefly during an apprenticeship). As the artstic genius struggles with trying to achieve his vision, time wears on and battles loom. "When will you be make an end to it?" becomes the Pope's constant refrain. Of course, we know what becomes of the ceiling. The real story is the intricate and fraught relationship between the two men, and the power art has on us all.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a film not quite sure what to do with itself. It's sweeping visuals of the Italian countryside, the battles waged on screen, and even the length of the film all seem to point towards this being a grand epic of art, religion, and war. Certainly, the main set- the Sistine Chapel and its ceiling expertly recreated on a sound stage- would indicate this also. Yet, the battles fade to the background as do the other characters (even- or perhaps most especially- the pseudo-love interest of Michelangelo). At it's heart, it is a biographical story centered on the four years or so it took for a masterpiece to be completed. Rex Harrison, despite looking so exactly like himself, gives a fantastic performance as Julius II, radiating the frustration and admiration that must have enveloped many who saw the artist's early potential. Charleston Heston, playing the sculptor-turned-painter, strived for such accuracy in his portrayal that he even put a lead pipe up his nose in order to mimic the famous crooked lines of the real Michelangelo's nose. His dedication produced a character who was taciturn, cranky and agonized, but, as the 1965 New York Times review of the film pointed out, it was perhaps a Michelangelo who lacked the ecstasy and warmth that is evident in the real artist's work.  Despite this, the two actors displayed a real tension between them that eventually bled over into real life. While it is unfortunate that it resulted in Heston and Harrison not wanting to work together again, what it created on-screen was interesting to watch.

The other  major oddity of the film is the length  When one knows the end of the story- that the ceiling is finished-having the tension based almost entirely on the question of when will Michelangelo get done is a bit of a drag. Also, a fifteen minute then-modern-day introduction, where we are shown the artist's sculptural achievements, does not help the speed. Still, despite the way it delays the story from starting, one has to wonder how many people were able to see so many of Michelangelo's works for the first time there, and how seeing them, so large on the movie screen, must has felt.

Overall, it is clear why it never achieved box office glory with it's ponderous pace and a story that was perhaps too-limited in scope for the big canvas of the silver screen. Yet, if you have the time and enjoy seeing what art can do to people, I encourage you to watch and experience both The Agony and Ecstasy -of Michelangelo, of Pope Julius II and of the Sistine Chapel.


  1. I really love your writing style - you have such an interesting blog! I'm now following you :)


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  2. You always bring up interesting films I haven't heard of before. This sounds interesting, especially if you are interested in art! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Hello! Just wanted to let you know I nominated you for a Liebster Award. You can check out the rules here:

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  4. Congrats and huzzah! I nominated you for a Liebster Award! Follow the white rabbit:

    - Anna

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  5. Thanks for your sweet comment!
    This sounds really interesting, but I already have so many films I want to watch...sigh, not enough time!

    Have a good Sunday,

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  6. I LOVE films! and this sounds pretty good so I might have to watch it!

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  7. I've only seen this once, when I was too young to appreciate it. I'll have to watch it again :)

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  8. Again, this is another film I watched with my grandparents on AMC when I was little. I kind of remember loving it because at the age of 7 I had a crush on Charlton Heston and I loved Michaelangelo...or anything that had to do with art for that matter. One of these days I need to give it a watch again.

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