The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
NEW YORK, Oct. 8—Anyone who has ever had the painters working in his home cluttering the rooms with ladders and dropcloths and taking forever to finish the job, should have a particular sensitivity to the only tension that develops in Carol Reed's "The Agony and the "Ecstasy," which opened at Loew's State last night.
That is the friction that develops between Pope Julius II, and Michelangelo after the latter has been commissioned to paint frescoes on the ceiling of the Pope's private Sistine Chapel the great painter dawdles on the job, taking years to get the proper inspiration, and then complete the massive masterpiece.
No matter how much one may goggle in absolute wonder and awe at the creation of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, so ingeniously and magnificently represented in this huge color film, and no matter how much one may work up a certain historical respect for Michelangelo, the major if not the only feeling aroused by this more than two-hour work is one of sympathy with the mounting impatience of the Pope.
Here the proud man has commissioned the great Florentine artist to do a job that presumably should take him no more than a year or so. He has allowed him to crowd his favorite chapel with crude stairways and lofty scaffolding, from which the master and his assistants are frequently dropping brushes and dripping paint. He has grudgingly but generously conceded that he may paint whatever he will, despite the objections of certain critics among his cardinals. And then he is forced to wait.
He is forced to wait while Michelangelo commences and pursues one design and then, dissatisfied with it, destroys what he has done. He is forced to wait while the painter takes off to the Carrara Hills, there to cut marble in a quarry and commune with his troubled soul.
The great man comes back inspired with a whole new plan for a fresco depicting the creation and works on that interminably.
No wonder poor Julius is driven to annoyance, impatience, despair and finally to violent papal anger as the work goes on and on. With all due regard for the artist, the viewer is driven to anger, too. "When will you make an end?" The Pope-shouts often to the man on the scaffold above. That is a question the viewer feels like shouting at the makers of this film.
For, despite the technical brilliance of their designs and photography, including a stunning replication of the Sistine Chapel done to scale; despite the evident reverence with which they have gone at their task and an interesting, quizzical performance by Rex Harrison as the Pope, they have labored too long and too closely over an incident in art history. They have produced not a strong and soaring drama but an illustrated lecture on a slow artist at work.
That is the fault, in the first place, of Philip Dunne's wordy script, based on the equally wordy but more theatrical novel of Irving Stone. With no roots or romance in his story and only that conflict between artist and Pope, he gives us a pseudo-personal drama that is as impersonal and emotionless as glass.
And, secondly, Charlton Heston's acting in the role of Michelangelo is arrogant, agonized and cranky without a glimmer of ecstasy or warmth. Not once does it generate an image of an artist who might have done such glorious works as are illustrated in the prefatory section of the film. One can get more of a feeling of contact with the artist from a documentary called "The Titan" than from all this mammoth picture, and the artist himself is never shown in it.
Incidental and superfluous are Diane Cilento as a countess who adores Michelangelo with a bleak and deathless devotion, Harry Andrews as a grumbling architect and Tomas Milian as a youthful Raphael who is as pretty and vapid as a boy in school.
The moat absorbing thing in the picture is the illustration of how the artist transferred the line drawings from his sketches to the ceiling. That gives you a rough idea.
Michelangelo Firm Opens in N.Y.
By BOSLEY CROWTHER, Special to The New York Times.
Published: October 9, 1965