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The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy
1965 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 138 min. / Street Date February 22, 2004 / 9.98
Starring Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento, Harry Andrews, Alberto Lupo, Adolfo Celi, Tomas Milian
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Production Designer John DeCuir
Film Editor Samuel E. Beetley
Original Music Alex North & Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Philip Dunne from the novel by Irving Stone
Produced and Directed by Carol Reed

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It seems kind of strange to have Return to Peyton Place released on DVD as a Studio Classics offering while this prestigious Fox picture comes out for a price one would expect to see in a bargain bin. All quasi-religious movies are not created alike and The Agony and the Ecstasy is really quite good. A gigantic Todd A-O 70mm Road Show extravaganza and one of the last big successess of that dying breed, its intelligent script does an excellent job of making the story of the painting of a ceiling into interesting fare. You don't have to be a blind-faith type to enjoy the philosophical content herein; there are some nice surprises among the cliché and predictable material.


Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) pulls Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) from his life's work making sculptures to instead throw a fresco up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a dreary building the Church can't afford to tear down. Michelangelo hates painting and does everything he can to dodge the assignment, but stays on thanks to the counsel of the Contessina di Medici (Diane Cilento), a married woman who can't understand why the artist prefers his work to her company. Michelangelo drags his feet while architect Donato Bramante (Harry Andrews) tries to have the commission shifted to his favorite, Raphael (Tomas Milian). When Michelangelo realizes his first pictures of saints is second-rate, he vandalizes his work and steals away to labor in a marble quarry while sorting things out. While a fugitive from the Pope's wrath he finds the inspiration he's looking for and comes back with an elaborate plan. But Pope Julius can spare little time to deal with a tempermental artist while fighting wars. Their arguments may become irrelevant anyway - the enemies of Rome may take the city and put an end to Michelangelo's work before he finishes.

The good thing about The Agony and the Ecstasy is that its script is not The Rennaissance for Dummies. It does remold the character of Michelangelo into the rugged hero required by a Charlton Heston film, and Pope Julius does come off a bit like Henry Higgins Builds His Dream House. But given those limits, Philip Dunne's script makes the story of the famous painting into a satisfying drama.

Reluctant artist for the Pope, Michelangelo gripes and whines and plagues his benefactor (who consistently neglects to pay him) to the point where he receives a beating with a stick - you don't talk to the Warrior Pope, Mike, you listen to him. The film successfully elevates the role of a religious artist to a level at least as holy as that of a priest. Michelangelo can't do anything unless his heart and soul is in it. He becomes a fugitive at one point, doing the same thing that Ayn Rand's he-man Howard Roarke did in The Fountainhead: work off his frustrations in a marble quarry. (Perhaps Rand modeled her character after the real Michelangelo?) While wandering on a Christ-like journey in the wilderness, Michelangelo is inspired with a vision of a painting in the high mountain clouds. The classy cinematography and effects (and particularly the Alex North music score) sell this scene extremely well. It could easily have been as trite as Charlie Brown seeing bunnies and doggies in the clouds.

The Heston-Harrison relationship is a predictable squabble that lasts for years. But they end up at the top of a scaffolding discussing how the artist visualizes God. It is an inspirational moment that compensates for the grandstanding when Michelangelo demands the right to paint man "as God made him, proud in his nakedness." There's also an exchange where Julius tries to explain to Michelangelo that he, the Pope, is but a brush in the hand of God, like one of Michelangelo's brushes. It's a effective observation with a tinge of Sunday School simplification to it.

The story details in The Agony and the Ecstasy range from fascinating to opportunistic. Julius is presented as a ruthless general holding his Papal States together against outside kings. The claim is of course is that he's defending a Holy empire that mere despots would destroy. It is a rationale that would work for any religion or jihad and is always going to be a little unsettling for the non-faithful, especially when one of Julius' cardinals (many of whom get their jobs through the payment of indulgences) extolls Julius to the heavens for being a warrior-soldier of the Almighty.

We don't expect to have Michelangelo portrayed as a libertine but it gets a bit thick when Diane Cilento's character, after trying to seduce him throughout the picture, admits that "There's more love on that ceiling than can ever be between a man and a woman." It also comes off as some kind of message that man-woman relationships are second-rate compared to church-directed faith. Just the same, The Agony and the Ecstasy presents its religious themes with a forceful intelligence. Hollywood pictures about religion at this time were seeking spiritual value in cute nuns that defeat Nazis, ride motorbikes or teach lessons to Hayley Mills.

Reviewers in 1965 were a little harsh on the movie, perhaps having had their fill of Charlton Heston playing overblown epic heroes. He's very good here, and if anything downplays what could be embarrassing material. Also considered coasting was director Carol Reed, whose films got bigger and wider ... critics seemed to blame him for not making more movies like The Third Man even though his good movies in that vein (Our Man in Havana, The Key) were not well received.

Sixties pulp villain Adolfo Celi is the Medici cardinal, but without his Emilio Largo voice from Thunderball. The future star of Marxist spaghetti westerns Tomas Milian plays Michelangelo's student Raphael as a nice-guy competitor.

The film is preceded by a sixteen minute-prologue showing Michelangelo's statuary, scored by guest composer Jerry Goldsmith. This makes the Intermission come rather soon, as the movie is only two hours and eighteen minutes long.

Fox's DVD of The Agony and the Ecstasy looks fine. The colorful enhanced transfer has little grain and comes from a master that's spotless save for a scratch or two. The default soundtrack encoded is just two-channel stereo, but there is a second 5.1 track on the menu. Fox has reportedly found a longer Road Show version of The Sand Pebbles, which we hope surfaces on DVD.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Agony and the Ecstasy rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: teaser, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 2, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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