The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
(Dir. Carol Reed | Twentieth Century Fox Film)


“For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die.”


That’s the essential point of this 1965 adaptation of Irving Stone’s overlong historical fiction about the creation of the Sistine Chapel, delivered by Thomas Milian’s fawning Raphael. He’s talking to the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, Michelangelo played with constant tight-assed agony by everyone’s favourite NRA advocate Charlton Heston. See Michelangelo – the artist not the TMNT, is having a hard time with his commission to produce a fresco for the ceiling of Pope Julius II’s chapel – a point made through the repeated joke in which the Pope (Rex Harrison) walking below looks up at the artist on the scaffolding above and asks “When will you make an end?” to which he receives the increasingly angry reply – “When I am finished.” Yes it turns out that clients and their builders have been having the same fight for over half-a-century. Oh and in case you didn’t know that Michelangelo was actually famous for his sculptures – there’s a wonderfully 1960s portentous, art-history-is-very-important-and-not-meant-for-the-understanding-of-just-anyone 12 minute prologue to the film which will set you straight on this point.


When we begin Michelangelo is actually busy carving the hell out of a massive block of marble for the Pope’s tomb but the Pope – as they are want to do – changes his mind and has Michelangelo come and look at his ceiling. Michelangelo protests but seriously what’s a 15th century sculptor supposed to do when his Pontiff requires his services? Especially when the Pope in question is not spending his time touring the Christian world in a bulletproof car, waving to crowds but rather donning armour and going off to fight on battlefields – Onward Christian Soldiers etc.


Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
(Dir. Carol Reed | Twentieth Century Fox Film)


After painting some adequate but not exactly earth shattering pictures on the ceiling – yielding a technically proficient scene in which we learn the tracing method by which the frescoes are applied – Michelangelo basically goes, what a certain generation of South Africans will recognise as “bossies.” He’s not happy with his efforts, fucks off to the marble quarries and then climbs a mountain where, in a typical moment of Hollywood inspiration last seen when Heston played Moses in The Ten Commandments, he sees God and Adam in the clouds. Divine inspiration dutifully received and interpreted our hero makes his way to the nearest battlefield where he interrupts his Holiness’ latest castle siege to show him his new plans for the ceiling and beg for his job back.


Years pass, tensions grow but it turns out that the genius sculptor is also a shit-hot painter and the Pope gets to tell the critics, “I told you so.”


Bill Viola’s Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014) | Image: Peter Mallet
Colour high-definition video polyptych, South Quire Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral


Yes the story of one man’s belief in another man’s creative abilities is by this reckoning at least half a century old. For further evidence look no further than a recent documentary about video artist Bill Viola’s commissions for St Paul’s Cathedral – same story, different time, better direction and no acting. Director Carol Reed will always be remembered for The Third Man but his portentous and slow and very sexless, sanitized version of this particular chapter in the life of an artist who continues to inspire awe and amazement in those bitten with the artistic bug is not his finest moment. Props though to the art department who, not permitted to film the actual Sistine ceiling, recreated it on a sound stage at the Cinecitta studios. As for Heston and Harrison – they really didn’t get along, but like Pope Julius and Michelangelo they grudgingly respected each other’s pricklier characteristics.


In the end all the arguments and self-doubt and trekking up mountains to see the face of God was worth it – you can be sure more people know the images on the ceiling than they do the names of Rex Harrison, Charlton Heston, Carol Reed or Irving Stone. The Agony as one critic pointed out at the time was the experience of having to sit through the film, the Ecstasy, well that would take another 500 years to invent.


Next month we’ll figure out how many ways to slice an ear in the cinematic history of Vincent Van Gogh.


Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
(Dir. Carol Reed | Twentieth Century Fox Film)


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