The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Genres - Epic, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Biopic [feature], Historical Epic  |   Release Date - Oct 7, 1965 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 136 min.  |   Countries - USA  |  
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Goaded by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo paints the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512 in this lavish motion picture directed by Carol Reed. The production is a sumptuous feast for viewers who like films dripping with history, including watercolors trickling into Michelangelo's eyes while he lies on scaffolding painting the Book of Genesis from Adam to Noah. Although the film's script and character development are not exceptional, the production scores an A with a 16th century atmosphere peopled with robed theocrats, breastplated warriors, and quarrymen hewing prized Carrara marble from a great jaw of stone. Charlton Heston portrays Michelangelo with the same larger-than-life magnetism he exhibited while parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments and driving his quadriga to victory in Ben-Hur (critics of Heston -- and they are legion -- opine that he performs with smaller-than-life dispassion in all of his films). Rex Harrison is appropriately nettlesome as Julius II, the warrior pope who conquers Perugia and Bologna and loves art as much as armor. Between wars and affairs of state, the impatient pontiff looks in on the recumbent painter atop the scaffolding and asks, "When will you make an end of it?" Julius understands only the ecstasy of viewing a finished masterpiece, not the agony of creating it. And there we have the central conflict: Julius the pragmatist versus Michelangelo the idealist. But Michelangelo paints on, often without compensation, for his is a godly enterprise for Holy Mother Church. Although the comely Contessina de Medici (Diane Cilento) temporarily distracts him from his work as she nurses him back to health after he suffers a fall, Michelangelo remains faithful to his true love, art. The flesh is willing, perhaps, but the spirit has work to do. Overall, the film is probably too long, but it does succeed in bathing the viewer in the 16th century, washing away 21st century qualm and anxiety with the healing balm of Renaissance majesty.