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Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Directed by: Carol Reed  

Premise: A dramatization of Michelangelo’s (Charlton Heston) struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel at the prompting of Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison).

What Works: From the mid-1950s and throughout the 1960s, Hollywood studios were making epic films, many of them adaptations of Biblical stories such as The Ten Commandments, The Robe, and Ben-Hur. Released toward the end of this trend was The Agony and the Ecstasy and this particular film makes an effective capstone to this period of moviemaking. The picture has many of the key characteristics of these films: it’s placed in the distant past, emphasizes religious characters and themes, includes a story that spans a long period of time, photographs vast spaces with widescreen cinematography, and it features Charlton Heston in the role of Michelangelo. But The Agony and the Ecstasy can be seen as an end cap to the epics of the 1950s and 60s in part because the movie is (almost self-reflexively) about the struggle to create grand works of art that pay tribute to the people and events portrayed in them, especially religious narratives and characters. The conflict of The Agony and the Ecstasy arises between Michelangelo, played by Heston, and Pope Julius II, played by Rex Harrison. These two actors are very well matched and each of their characters embodies conflicting priorities. The Pope sees the frescos of the Sistine Chapel as serving a pragmatic and religious role and he and his advisors evaluate the work in those terms. As portrayed in this film, Michelangelo’s decision to portray Biblical scenes in a manner that recalls the art of the ancient Greeks and includes nudity is very upsetting. As an artist, Michelangelo has a different understanding of beauty and of meaning and that difference is cause for some of the most interesting conflicts in the film. But in the context in which The Agony and the Ecstasy was made, the picture dramatizes precisely what Hollywood had been doing at the time and continues to do: to interpret historical and sacred texts and present them to the audience in ways that reflect the ideals and obsessions of the filmmaker.

What Doesn’t: The Agony and the Ecstasy takes place amid the Italian Wars, in which Pope Julius II took on the role of military leader. Not a whole lot about this is explained and so viewers who are not familiar with European history may be lost and could benefit from a little research before or after the movie. The irony is that the filmmakers have an opportunity to present that exposition but they blow it. The Agony and the Ecstasy begins with a twelve minute documentary but instead of using that preface to set up the background of the story, this mini-documentary focuses on the legacy of Michelangelo’s body of work. This foreword to the movie does not add anything and it is extremely dry, playing like something out of a museum exhibit and it could be excised without hurting the feature film. That verbosity is one of the negative aspects of the picture. This film’s official running time is two hours and eighteen minutes but that length includes the unnecessary twelve minute introduction and an intermission. These features were probably included because of the conventions of epic films of that time but The Agony and the Ecstasy does not need them and the movie could be considerably shortened just by excising them. A few of the dramatic sequences are also a little slow or overdrawn, especially those that focus on the relationship between Michelangelo and his former lover, played by Diane Cilento. The title of The Agony and the Ecstasy implies a greater contrast of highs and lows than are actually in the picture. Michelangelo and Pope Julius’ mutual frustration with each other effectively drives the story but the movie does not convey the joy and suffering involved in creating great art as fully as the title suggests.

DVD extras: Trailers.

Bottom Line: The Agony and the Ecstasy is not really an epic movie but it was forced to fit into the epic format due to filmmaking conventions of that time. Despite being baggy in places, the movie is very entertaining, it has a pair of strong performances by its principle actors, and it manages to be a thoughtful consideration of the perils of adapting sacred texts into graphic form.

Episode: #485 (April 6, 2014)