THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
MOVIE: ** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5)
Charlton Heston as MICHELANGELO
Rex Harrison as POPE JULIUS II
Diane Cilento as CONTESSINA DE’MEDICI
Harry Andrews as BRUMANTE
Alberto Lupo as DUKE OF URBINO
Adolfo Cedli as GIOVANNI DE’MEDICI
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Carol Reed
BY KEVIN CARR
With the exception of an occasional out-side-of-the-industry hit like “The Passion of the Christ” or “Son of God,” Hollywood has become extremely secular nowadays. It wasn’t always like that, for better or for worse. Back in the early and mid-20th century, Hollywood released a large number of religious-themed films, often to great success.
The many cultural revolutions that occurred in the late-60s and throughout the 70s left their mark on Hollywood. Religious movies were quickly becoming passe, and fewer seemed to be hitting the screens. However, every spring, we are reminded of how pious Hollywood used to be when they release their stable of religious movies leading up to the Easter holiday.
20th Century Fox has released a Blu-ray of their award-winning 1965 film “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” The film stars Charlton Heston as Renaissance artist Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II, known as the Warrior Pope. Essentially about the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” finds its drama in the interpersonal conflicts between Michelangelo and the Pope. We see how the sculptor Michelangelo is coerced into painting his masterpiece while the Pope strong-arms his way throughout Europe.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” was made in a different time, almost 50 years ago. Not only was this, as mentioned, a more pious time in Hollywood, but it was also at a time when cinematography focused on the scope and beauty of an image – much like a painting on a canvas – rather than the quick editing style and close-up nature of today’s films.
This is the real reason to watch “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” It’s a film about art, and it’s shot in a very artful way. The cinematography attempts to capture the scope of Michelangelo’s work, and it focuses on the beauty within the painting itself. In some ways, the characters are secondary to the visual image here, which might feel a bit disjointed from a standard story but seems oddly appropriate for the subject matter herein.
Beyond the beauty of the art shown, the film takes in the majesty and scope of the Catholic church, showing the grand architecture and designs. Even from afar, we see the buildings held up as beacons on the screen with the warring factions below shot in the style of a painting rather than as an action film. Previously only available on DVD, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is beautiful to look at, and the new high-def transfer makes it excellent for home viewing.
However, with all the beauty of the image, there’s not a whole lot of story. Based on the book of the same name, this is meant to be a biography of Michelangelo. Instead, it’s a bit too self-important and presents him in a light of too much reverence. In the film, Michelangelo is the epitome of the tortured artist, struggling with the powers that be. Heston strides through the film, but there’s very little depth to the emotions presented.
We are left with a somewhat bloated piece, offering a 15-minute art history lesson at the head of the film, without which would make the intermission unnecessary. It feels as if the filmmakers did not want to delve into the realities of emotion and character for fear it would taint the memory of the great works of Michelangelo. That may have worked in 1965, but it does not hold up well from a modern storytelling perspective.
In the end, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is more required viewing for the fan of pious filmmaking or the cinematographer in film school. From a story and character perspective, it’s sadly very forgettable.
The only features included on the Blu-ray is the original teaser trailer and the theatrical trailer.