Movie Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy

AgonyThumbby Brad Nelson
Maybe I’m turning into Newt Gingrich, but I’ve always liked religious-themed movies. But in this one you get a three-fer: religion, art, and politics. They say that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics. Maybe that’s why I like them, front-and-center, in a movie with stars from an era when star-power and talent could carry a grand theme.

I can’t see them making this movie today. Oh, perhaps they could cast the Pope successfully. That’s an easier role. But they’d probably give us Clive Owen as Buonarroti (Michelangelo). And with all due respect to Clive, who has been good in a movie or two, I can’t see him, or any other current male star, carrying the grandness as Charlton Heston does.

According to the totally unreliable movie ratings at IMDB.com (I go there often to get basic movie information), the IMDB public does not think much of this movie. It doesn’t even make their top 250 list.

Part of the problem may be that this is not a dumbed-down movie. There are no car chases, slow-motion deaths, or f-bombs (although there may be a few “Jesus Christs,” but in a totally different context). The Agony and the Ecstasy begins with a several-minute art history retrospective of some of Brother Buonarroti’s works, as well as some basic art lessons.

My goodness, actual content in a movie about art wherein you actually need to think and are challenged to appreciate art forms, and a skill for making them. Such things are esoteric and beyond most of us. But we can, with patience, come to appreciate this process if filmmakers have at least a minimal respect for the viewer. And this movie does, thus that art history opening that turns this movie from a good, but potentially run-of-the-mill, biography, to something that tackles the sublime mystery of art and artistic talent itself.

Well, rip a star or two from the IMDB rating for the producers daring to try to do just that. Inserting intelligence in a movie is a big no-no these days. What is also unusual about this movie (and might contribute to its somewhat low IMDB.com rating) is that it is one of the most adult-like and non-goofy religious-themed movies that you’ll ever see.

RexAndChuckIn this one, the Pope is a straight-talking soldier trying to save his church. And he isn’t above shedding a little blood and slapping people around a bit as well. This is not your father’s Pope-Mobile pope. Somewhat in contrast, the artist, Brother Buonarroti, believes in god with all his heart and has some appreciation for the talent he has been given.

But this isn’t simply a longer version of a Davey and Goliath episode. The human passions and foibles of the characters involved are not glossed-over or over-glamorized. This movie is not The Ten Commandments, although I’m a sucker for that one too. This movie is refreshingly frank.

And I couldn’t help thinking while I was watching this that it was humanist-friendly. The Pope (played excellently by his excellency, Rex Harrison) has a much more realistic and cynical view of human nature. He takes a look at how Brother Buonarroti has painted God in the creation panel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and asks Buonarroti how he can see god as so benign? The answer Brother Buonarroti gives is a wonderful mix of humanism, idealism, and faith. This movie is not a bible-thumping caricature as some religious-themed movies are. It’s intelligent and multi-faceted.

I also think this is one of Charlton “get your hands off my marble, you damn, dirty ape” Heston’s best performances. The movie itself is so thoughtfully and intelligently written and directed, you can’t help but walk away with a sense of the true majesty of creation (however you understand the source of all creation) and with a powerful, subtle, and even sublime appreciation for the wonder of art itself.

Creation, suffering, and inspiration are the themes of this movie and it hits on all cylinders. At over two and a quarter hours, this movie feels like it almost short-changes you. I wanted to see more inside and around the battles and the politics of the era. I wanted to see a lot more of the nitty-gritty of sculpture and to learn a bit more about fresco, although you certainly do get some of that. I think any good movie leaves you wanting more, but for someone in the future this could make a fine mini-series. You could start perhaps with Brother Buonarroti boarding with Lorenzo the Magnificent and end with completion of the Chapel.

I’ve seen this movie before, but this was the first time I’d seen it on DVD in wide screen. And this was the restored version. Very nice. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it is a magnificent movie, thoughtfully done. It stands in such contrast to the juvenile fare that is the norm these days. I give it 4 “When will you make an end’s?” out of 5 — arare movie that crosses the magical 4 threshold on my non-inflated scale.

As a reviewer said about the Irving Stone biographical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, upon which the film is based: “It is an analysis of the struggle that is necessary to create.” I think this will be the next book I read. [And I did read it. And it is a superb book.]

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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11 Responses to Movie Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Here’s a nice paragraph (pg. 324) from Irving Stone’s book “The Agony and the Ecstasy”:

    Because he would take no time off for friends or rest or social life, Balducci accused him [Michelangelo] of trying to escape the world by fleeing into marble. He admitted to his friend that he was half right; the sculptor carries into the marble the vision of a more luminous world than the one that surrounds him. But the artist was not in flight; he was in pursuit. He was trying with all his might to overtake a vision. Did God really rest on the seventh day? In the cool of that long afternoon, when He was refreshed, might He not have asked Himself, “Whom have I on earth to speak for me? I had best create another species, one apart. I will call him ‘artist.’ His will be the task to bring meaning and beauty to the world.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Here’s another beautiful passage from “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (pg. 389):

    All he knew for sure was that his was to be the David he had rediscovered, that he would use the opportunity to create all of the poetry, the beauty, the mystery and the inherent drama of the male body, the archetype and essence of correlated forms…

    The Greeks had carved bodies from their white marble of such perfect proportion and strength that they could never be surpassed; but the figures had been without mind or spirit. His David would be the incarnation of everything Lorenzo de’ Medici had been fighting for, that the Plato Academy had believed was the rightful heritage of man: not a sinful little creature living only for salvation in the next life, but a glorious creation capable of beauty, strength, courage, wisdom, faith in his own kind, with a brain and will and inner power to fashion a world filled with the fruit of man’s creative intellect. His David would be Apollo, but considerably more; Hercules, but considerably more; Adam, but considerably more; the most fully realized man the world had yet seen, functioning in a rational and humane world.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    More commentary of the book, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”:

    This book is amenable to reading a bit at a time as you go through the episodes of Michelangelo’s life. From this Irving Stone historical novel you understand not only the technical expertise of Michelangelo but the emotional intelligence that goes into a great work of art. That’s not to set aside aesthetic sophistication and artistry but Michelangelo can’t proceed with a work unless he has a feeling and a clear vision for what he wants to do. He’s not just applying paint to canvas (or plaster) or chipping away at marble with great skill. He’s reaching deep for something that, through its expression, defines the outer limits of humanity and if not humanity itself. His goal is more than to bamboozle with color and technique.

    Various fine attributes excelled in Michelangelo, but holding it all together was his sense of truth and the desire to do his best. Think of the hordes of filmmakers who possess the finest tools of their trade, and more than a little talent, but who waste it on absurdities. If you really do believe that white people and Western Culture are bad, and all “people of color” are inherently good and in touch with nature, then don’t give us cartoons and cardboard cut-out caricatures and other hack absurdities as in “Avatar.” If you truly believe the premises (as Michelangelo did about God and Creation), then fill them out with something other than recycled clichés.

    And Michelangelo did just that. I’m at the point in the story where he has rethought the entire concept for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He knows that both the initial concept given to him by the pope, and his execution of that concept, are mediocre. And even though he despises the task laid before him by Julius II (he craves to do nothing but sculpt his precious Carrara marble), he can’t bring himself to do a half-assed job. There was no “Sistine Chapel Beta” in his blood. He could not foist an unfinished, half-realized product onto people (as so many companies do these days) and charge full price. He didn’t go to the pope with his mediocrity and try to hide it under slogans such as “Think Different.”

    Certainly Michelangelo sets a high standard indeed. But why not? Why should we be satisfied with the mediocrity of political correctness and postmodernism? Michelangelo was certainly not content with merely parroting the art, styles, and beliefs of his time. He tried to push the envelope and do something new and to expand the boundaries of art and humankind itself. He was not content to be a parrot. But many are. And many can make, through force of will aided and abetted by slick propaganda, the mediocre into something posing as better. By getting other fools to share in a trumped-up idea of a self-flattering “vision” you can indeed make the pedestrian, the ugly, or just the willfully deceitful into a pretend excellence. But such an excellence is shallow and unworthy of us humans.

    Michelangelo, on the other hand, was what you might call a “fully-realized” human being. And he suffered for it. That is the nature of the title. “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” He was not satisfied with safe mediocrity. Unlike much of today’s culture, he was not satisfied to look out at deception, mediocrity, and false things and pretend they were like Greek Gods.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    More commentary of the book, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”:

    I can’t imagine any view of history being complete without taking a look at one of the supreme artists of all time. If the history of mankind is no more than his last battle, we are nothing.

    We toil, but man since pre-history has made art. You can see it on the cave walls. Art has purpose. It has political purpose. Or magical purpose. Or expressive purpose. Or all of these and more. But it’s truly something that sets man above all other life. It propels him to ask “What is it all for?” “What does this mean?” “How can I express and understand my world?”

    Not all art asks such profound questions, but it seems Michelangelo’s did. His universe was a thoroughly Christian universe and he strove to make sense of it and express it absolutely through his art, through analogy, through metaphor, through symbols, through icons, and through beauty itself. But always he was looking for the boldest, freshest, most relevant expression. In the book, Irving Stone expresses that Michelangelo was striving to go beyond the individual in his art and make it express something universal. Art wasn’t a way for him to make a buck, attract chicks, or gain fame. At least according to this historical novel which certainly blends fact with fiction, Michelangelo was driven to do his art.

    While Raphael caroused and Leonardo tinkered, Michelangelo was metaphorically involved in his own kind of Passion. The other artists were stupendously great and eventually Michelangelo (at least in this novel) does get around to appreciating how both excelled, even beyond him in certain areas. But next to Michelangelo, they seemed like unserious dandies. This novel paints a life-long Herculean struggle undertaken by Michelangelo in quest of his art. After reading this novel, the picture I get of him is of a man constantly dirty, smelly, thin as a rail from not eating, and covered in paint or marble dust. I can see him walking through the streets on his way back to his living quarters and getting odds looks. He must have looked like a homeless person, and quite the opposite of the “high society” artists of the time. And yet he arguably produced the finest sculpture, fresco, and architecture of his age, or any age.

    To me, before reading this historical novel, Michelangelo and his art were as dead and lifeless as a hunk of unformed marble. He was a name in a book. A historical footnote, even if an extremely large one. The art appreciation comes in the form of learning the technique and the logistics of fresco and sculpture, for sure (up to and including excavating the marble from the mountains). But in the case of Michelangelo, it’s learning of his struggle, his passion to plumb the very depths of beauty. And every concept of beauty and proportion seemed to be second nature to him. He worked to express it, but inside was an eye that needed no training. His life was the living out of something profound and somewhat mysterious. As he says in the book several times, he does not know where his ideas come from. God? The mind? Elsewhere? He does not know.

    Beside the life and art of Michelangelo, this historical novel delves deep into the political, religious, and social life of 15th and 16th century Florence and Rome. Florence was a jewel in an otherwise fractious and combative Italy and Europe. It strove hard to remain a republic dedicated to what we would consider today the Enlightened life of art, business, freedom, and peace. But they were forever caught in the machinations of popes, Holy Roman Emperors, the Kings of France, not to mention some of the horrible home-grown leaders of Florence and Tuscany.

    You also get an up close and personal view of the Pope and the Vatican. You see their foibles, their institutional corruption, and, once in a while, they’re ennobling influence as they were the largest patron of the arts. But mostly it is a hard life in and around Italy as people are at the mercy of unscrupulous men. One of Michelangelo’s lifelong friends dies near the end of the book and he says something like “Well, at least I will have the freedom of death while you will be stuck here among treacherous men.”

    Michelangelo lived a long, interesting, hard, and productive life. I don’t know how to sum-up the book other than to say that he personifies man’s attempt to crawl out of his cave and transcend his treacherous, ignorant, violent nature and make and behold beautiful things. To know beauty is to love. To love is to know (and maybe even make) beautiful things.

    • faba calculo says:

      I can’t believe you wrote about anything even related to the Sistine Chapel without commenting on what an important victory it represented in Christianity’s long-running naval battle.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        You write what you want. I’ll write what I want. That’s the way it works, Mr. Calculo. Nit-picking is all well and good, but it’s not much of a way of life.

        • faba calculo says:

          Sorry, Brad. It was just a joke gone wrong.

          “Naval victory?” you were supposed to say. “How was the painting of the Sistine Chapel a naval victory?”

          See punchline below.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        Sorry Mr. C., I don’t get it. I am pretty well read, but this is so esoteric that perhaps only the Illuminati can understand it.

        • faba calculo says:

          Proud fellow! You claim to be well read, and yet you cannot see the ramifications of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, even though they be as plain as nose on your face.

          Or, perhaps I should say, the bellybutton on Adam’s stomach!

          Because, no matter how silly it may (or may not) seem to us, one issue that would occasionally rear its ugly head in Christendom (and perhaps in Judaism and Islam as well), was the issue of whether or not Adam and Eve had bellybuttons.

          The details of this controversy can be found in Fenton and Fowler’s The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual, a real gem of a book. In it, the authors consulted experts on a wide variety of topics, and asked them for what they thought was the best example, the worst example, and the most unusual example of something in that field.

          The book, especially its “worst” sections, can be just hysterical to read. Example: worst act of diplomacy. This occurred when the US envoy to the armistice talks for (I believe) the 1956 Suez War urged the Israeli and Egyptian negotiators to settle their differences “like good Christians”.

          There, in the entry for “Worst Theological Dispute” the history of the bellybutton controversy are laid out. Apparently, Sir Thomas Browne, writing in 1646, attempted to provide a final answer in his (snicker) majestierial work, Untersuchung der Frage: Ob unsere ersten Uraltern, Adam and Eve, einen Nabel gehabt (Examination on the Question: Whether Our First Ancestors, Adam and Eve, Possessed a Navel.

          Well, likely you can see where I’m going with this. The (chortle) controversy seemed to have raged until the painting of the Sistine Chapel, with our original parent clearly shown to be in possession of a bellybutton, thus ending (guffaw) centuries of navel conflict!

          😉 BAR HAR HAR!!! 😉

          I mean, get it? Naval…navel…bellybutton. And how the painting of the Sistine Chap…

          …Brad, put the gun down.

          • Kung Fu Zu says:

            How could I have missed this? Next you will be telling me the exact number of angels which can dance upon the head of a pin.

            I trust you are not a lawyer as we’s going huntin’ soon.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Ah…navel battle. Okay. I get it.

            Well, I take the story of Genesis as more allegorical than literal so I’m fine with the presence of the navel. Perhaps the more interesting story is whose navel Michelangelo used as a model. He would apparently sketch people he saw in the pubs and places to get ideas for faces to be used for the various characters of his ceiling. They show this in the movie as well.

            But that’s the way artists work. And maybe he modeled Adam’s navel on someone’s actual navel. You never know.

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