by 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.
In 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.]