“The Agony and the Ecstasy” is aptly titled. There are moments in this 1965 historical drama that are almost agonizing to watch, while other scenes tend toward the sublime.
That wasn’t the intent, of course. The title comes from the Irving Stone novel upon which it’s based, and it refers to the laborious but rewarding process of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that the artist Michelangelo—and his benefactor-slash-slavedriver, Pope Julius II—experienced.
Charlton Heston seems well chosen for the role of the 16th century sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti, partly because he already experienced a similar agony and ecstasy, and with a storyline that feels vaguely akin to what Heston-as-Moses went through in “The Ten Commandments” (1956). There are wandering-in-the-wilderness moments, a burning-bush revelation, women whose love takes a back seat to destiny, a golden calf tantrum or two, and verbal jousting between a poor commoner and a man of wealth and power—all within the framework of a film that’s treated like a historical epic. Heck, there’s even a two-minute black screen intermission, though at 138 minutes the Sir Carol Reed-directed film hardly seems to need it.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” was nominated for five Academy Awards, None of them were big categories, but Hollywood did recognize the sumptuous visual style of the film (Art Direction, Costume Design, Cinematography) and its companion sound (Score, Sound), and for good reason. There are times when you’d swear it was actually filmed inside the decorous Vatican rather than the Dino De Laurentis Cinematografica Studios in Rome, and exterior shots of The Eternal City encourage the illusion. So does liberal use of a cappella choral music that sounds ecstatic for the most part, but oddly screechy and agonizing for one scene.
What can I say? It’s that kind of project—a Todd-AO 70mm high-resolution production that looks absolutely gorgeous once the film begins . . . 12 minutes after the cameras start rolling. That is, for the first 12 minutes you find yourself doing a double take, wondering if you inadvertently clicked on one of the bonus features instead of “play movie.” A voiceover documentary on Michelangelo and his early work leading up to the Sistine Chapel commission fills the space. Then the screen finally fades to black and the fictional portion begins. It’s the strangest unexplained opening I’ve ever seen in a film, and it will seem excruciating to watch for some, and fascinating for others. But all will find it disjointed and wonder when it will end, or if the Blu-ray was somehow mislabeled.
As for the REAL film, if Heston was having character deja vu, so was his co-star, Rex Harrison, who spends as much time in breastplate and armor as he did two years earlier playing Julius Caesar in “Cleopatra.” Harrison and Heston didn’t get along on the set, probably because their styles are so different. Heston reportedly used a steel rod to make his nose look broken, as Michelangelo’s was, but Harrison wouldn’t even grow a beard to match the one that Pope Julius II wore.
That’s okay. The bad blood between actors adds a veneer of authenticity to the antagonistic relationship between the arrogant sculoptor and the man who forced him to become a painter. And it really is just a story of two men, though Michelangelo has the support of the cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (blandly played by Adolfo Celi, who also was the villainous Largo in the 1965 Bond film “Thunderball”) and the admiration of Medici’s sister (Diane Cilento, “Tom Jones”). Likewise, while the Pope is surrounded by soldiers, cardinals, and holy singers for the entire film, they’re nothing more than set decoration.
Contemporary viewers will find it fascinating to see how frescoes were painted using fresh plaster and paper guides, and to see how the marble slabs for large statues were mined in the Tuscany quarries. Others will revel in the pomp and ceremony of the age, or the contentious relationship of two very stubborn men.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” charts a battle of wills between a Holy Father who was called “The Warrior Pope” because he led soldiers in the War of the Holy League to gain new territory for his Christian realm, and the stubborn artist who fell victim to his bait-and-switch. The famed sculptor was originally invited to Rome by Julius II to create an elaborate tomb for the Pope . . . but then was coerced into taking on the impossible job of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Pope would not take “no” for an answer, and the process of painting would go on for a period of seven years, during which Michelangelo would torment Julius II with his artist’s vision and stubborn exactitude. In other words, there was plenty of agony and ecstasy on both sides, and the film succeeds in capturing that.
Once you get past a grainier introduction and the fictional part of the film begins, the visual quality is nothing short of superb. Todd-AO was a high-def format and lends itself well to Blu-ray transfer. Aside from a few minor issues I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 encode, and the level of detail—though not necessarily depth—is pretty amazing for a film this old. It looks as good as the restored version of “The Ten Commandments,” in fact. Colors pop, and the golds and reds of the Vatican are impressively well saturated. Black levels could be slightly stronger in order to enhance edge delineation in darker scenes, but this is really a minor quibble, mostly because there are very few scenes that are affected. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is presented in 2:20:1 aspect ratio.
When those high voices sing in harmony you realize how immersive the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is, and with a natural balance among low, mid-range, and high notes. Dialogue between the two men is always crisp and clean, though with some of the minor characters there’s a slight muffling that makes you wonder if the parts were dubbed. Even so, the audio is still impressive, especially if you compare it to the other options: the Italian DTS 5.1, the French Dolby Digital 2.0, or the Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0. Subtitles are in English SDH, Spanish, and Italian.
No double-takes necessary. There are no bonus features, except for a teaser and theatrical trailer.
If you take away the clunky documentary-style introduction to Michelangelo that, even in retrospect, seems odd and unnecessary, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is a pretty decent costume drama. For some viewers, the agony will be watching Charlton Heston (over)act, and the ecstasy Rex Harrison. But it IS refreshing for a period film to cover such new and (pun intended) artistic ground.