When master marble sculptor Michelangelo is hired/forced by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel he struggles to find meaning in the work and to get a long with the Pope, who seems to antagonize him at every turn.
As I tried to decide who my Wild Card pick for the United Kingdom Road Trip Series on TMM was, there were a few names that popped up. Carol Reed was a pretty easy choice but I decided not to watch “The Third Man,” his best known film. One reason was that I had already seen it and I thought it was a little over rated for my taste. The second, was that I had just seen "Andrei Rublev" and I thought there was a sort of symmetry in choosing the story of one of the most famous religious painters of the west right after the story of one of the greatest religious painters of the east.
Unfortunately, this film is no “Andrei Rublev.” I won’t hold that against it since I don’t think it is quite trying to be.
In the film, Charlton Heston (“Ben Hur,” “Planet of the Apes”) plays Michelangelo. He goes through various temperaments over the course of the movie, at times feeling like he is being forced to paint the chapel, at others feeling inspired and unable to stop, and in yet others feeling like he can’t even begin to think of what he should be painting.
The movie pits him against Rex Harrison (“My Fair Lady”) as Pope Julius II, who has bigger fish to fry than just the chapel. He is fighting a war with France which seeks to invade and take over Italy. The country relies on his strength and all the while Michelangelo seems to bristle at every request for a progress report and is constantly asking for money.
It is on this battle of wills which the movie focuses on. It seems Michelangelo only wants to keep working on the chapel as long as it is his work and not chiefly the pope’s and the Pope wants the work to continue but it must be finished at some point and hopefully cost less than the fall of Italy.
In many ways the film attempts to live in a place of tension between the artist and the administrator. As many artists have lamented over the centuries, no one wants to sacrifice what true art really costs except for the artist themselves. There are numerous films, books, songs, and whatever other art form you can think of which look at this struggle.
Few however seem to empathize at all with the other side the coin. This film is as interested in the throes of passionate inspiration and disillusionment of the artist as it is with the concerns, empty bank accounts, more immediate engagements, and social ramifications which the commissioner of such a project must deal with on top of the constant requests for money, help, and advice when requested from the artist and absolute silence when not.
All of this is pretty entertaining at times but in the film ends up falling a bit flat for me. Heston is clearly never really painting and his acting leaves a lot to be desired. Rex Harrison is better suited to his role but only barely. He is the most English pope ever to reside over Rome and all Italy. Thematically the film is just as shallow and clunky, never really delving into issues of God and how he relates to the arts and civilization.
Luckily, the production design is wonderful. The Sistine Chapel they built to film in is astoundingly beautiful and impressive. It is in fact, the main reason to watch the film. Then again, it is also one of the saddest parts of the film because of the lack of dynamism in the filming of it. In one scene we see Michelangelo saying how the scaffolding should be built and in the next, it’s up already. watching workmen build the scaffolding and all it entails would have been far more impressive.
In fact, that is a pretty good metaphor for how I felt about this film. It almost gets it right. It has the pieces but doesn’t quite get the final picture looking like it does on the box. There are weird jagged edges sticking out all over.
It ends upping a ok piece of art about the making of a greater one.
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