Monday, September 25, 2006


As widescreen 60's historical epics go, this is about average: there is some beautiful cinematography and the sets are impressive, but the drama can't quite live up to all those trappings. In fact, in some ways, this material might have worked better as a two-person play since, even though there appear to be thousands of extras milling about, essentially there are only two important speaking roles, the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and his patron Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). The movie, like the recent CAPOTE, doesn't try to encapsulate Michelangelo's entire life but instead covers one crucial period of time: his work on the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1513. Julius, known as the Warrior Pope, is at war with France trying to recover the Papal States under the banner of the Vatican, and the film includes a couple of lackluster battle sequences, but mostly we see Julius warring with Michelangelo over the painting of the Chapel. Michelangelo sees himself as a sculptor rather than a painter, and when the film opens, he has been spending years on a series of statues for the future tomb of the Pope and resents it when Julius pulls him away to work on the chapel ceiling. Once Michelangelo does throw himself into the painting, he has conflicts with Julius about time, cost, and style, specifically the scandalous nudity of some of his figures. The cardinals find the nudes to be obscene, but the artist's response is, "God created man with pride--it was left to the priests to create shame." Whenever Michelangelo seems ready to give up, the Pope goads him into continuing, and later when Julius is on what all assume to be his deathbed, about to succumb to battle injuries, the artist goads him back to health.

There is a woman, a Medici countess (Diane Cilento), who loves Michelangelo and nurses him back to health after he reaches total exhaustion while working on the ceiling, but he is unwilling to take energy away from his art to put into a relationship. In fact, although the movie ignores long-standing theories that Michangelo had love affairs with men, the film does treat Michelangelo, Julius, and the countess almost as a love triangle. It's worth noting that the movie is at least twice removed from history, as it is based on a novel by Irving Stone, and the countess is apparently a totally fictional character. There isn't much humor, except for a kind of running gag involving Michelangelo accidentally dropping things from the scaffolding onto the priests during mass. The only other actors with much dialogue are Harry Andrews as a papal architect and supervisor of the chapel painting, and Thomas Milian as Raphael, an artist whom the Pope considers using at one point to replace Michelangelo. The cinematography is quite good, and a scene in which Michelangelo is inspired by a view of clouds from a mountaintop to shape his God and Adam comes off nicely, although it could easily have been dreadful kitsch. The reconstructions of the in-progress ceiling are impressive, but the shot near the end of the completed art made me a little dizzy. Heston is at the peak of his looks, though Harrison nearly acts him right off the screen. [FMC]

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