LESS THE RAPTURE
Irving Stone’s acclaimed biographical novel The Agony and the Ecstasy covers eleven periods of Michelangelo, from early artist to his death. It’s a sweeping, fast-moving narrative, backed by a convincing bibliography; you know why moviemakers wanted to make it—at least a part of it—into a prestige roadshow. Carol Reed’s production, with a script by Philip Dunne, concentrates on Book Seven: The Pope. Between uprisings and skirmishes, the warrior pontiff Julius II demands that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s barn-like Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo balks but, in order not to become victim of Julius’s infamous wrath, attempts to fulfil the pope’s request of portraits of the twelve apostles until realizing the commission’s mediocrity and then surrenders to an elaborate “vision” that would take more than four years to complete. Stone’s “chapter” is about a hundred pages long; the movie feels much longer and is far less satisfying. Needn’t be manically wired, like Minnelli’s Lust for Life, but hoping for some drive, a little push, wouldn’t be asking a lot. And maybe just a little carnal pulse? Cautious prober as any director, Reed acquiesces to the terms of reticent biography and, while not entirely avoiding Michelangelo’s private life, steers away with some broadstrokes: In a brothel, a whore laughs, “You can search the whole world and you will never find Michelangelo in a house like this.” After Diane Cilento, playing Contessina de Medici, kisses Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo and he politely rebuffs, she asks if it’s another woman. He says no and waits a second or two to add, “It’s not that either.” If it’s not that, then what? He laments his experience with love has “left me empty,” that “God crippled me.” This noodle-headed safety also explains why the mini-documentary that opens the movie—“The Artist Who Did Not Want to Paint”—gives us only a brief longshot of David in full Monty, though you have to applaud that the first close-up view is very appropriately David’s foot, which belongs to one of the greatest sets ever reproduced. In their vain search for reality in the myth of incorruptibility, historians as well as respectful moviemakers conjure that Michelangelo didn’t have much overt sex and in the process make fools of themselves. (In an interview with Dick Cavett, Heston sounds a little less foolish.) Shaped by the expertise of caressing tools David is the genius’s coming-out. Comments, letters and sonnets to and about cobalt blue-eyed Tommaso are redundant confirmation that the genius’s love and adoration of male beauty extended beyond the artistry of painting and sculpture. (Not even author Stone can prevent his readers’ inescapable visions of masturbatory ejaculations between the lines.) If inadequate as caresser of statuary, Heston is customarily a roadshow presence; as Julius wearing deluxe armor and chain mail, Rex Harrison does his usual regal bit; Cilento has a melodious speaking instrument. Aldofo Celi and Fausto Tozzi and other supporting actors are poorly served by bad voice dubbing. Didn’t Alex North hear how sickening the hallelujah chorus became? Using TODD AO, Leon Shamroy does some sunny outdoor pans but is woefully deficient with the exalting masterpiece so agonizingly produced. (Though the Vatican considered the request to allow Reed to film in the Sistine Chapel, the decision to build it near-scale is one half the movie’s only artistry; the second half is the attempt to paint the famed ceiling in what Vatican art historians believed might have been its original colors—twenty years before the controversial restoration that started in 1984 and was completed in 1989.) Preview cards and early reviews suggested the roadshow would be a hit; instead, it bombed. Academy Award nominations for color cinematography, color art direction, sound, original musical score (North), color costumes (Vittorio Nino Novarese). “The Artist Who Did Not Want to Paint” written and directed by Vincenzo Labella and narrated by Marvin Miller, the dispenser of checks in TV’s The Millionaire and the narrator and announcer for the long-running series The F.B.I.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.