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Fox Home Entertainment presents
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

"Michelangelo will paint the ceiling. He will paint it, or he will hang."
- Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: February 21, 2005

Stars: Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento
Other Stars: Harry Andrews, Alberto Lupo, Adolfo Celi, John Stacy, Tomas Milian
Director: Carol Reed

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:18m:54s
Release Date: February 22, 2005
UPC: 024543148333
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+A+B D+

DVD Review

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with its elaborate portrayal of scenes from Genesis, is renowned as one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. After several centuries of smoke and ill-executed "restorations" had taken their toll on the 16th-century fresco, its glory had dimmed somewhat, only to be revealed in all its splendor with a 1990s restoration that took particular care with authenticity. A similar restoration has taken place with this classic picture about the creation of that work and the uneasy tension between artist and patron.

Sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charlton Heston) has been commissioned by warrior pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) to design his tomb for the nave of the new St. Peter's cathedral. When Michelangelo pesters him for payment, Julius decides to punish him with a different commission in an entirely different medium: to paint frescoes of the twelve apostles on the ceiling of the chapel built by his uncle, Pope Sixtus (hence, the Sistine Chapel). Michelangelo accepts the challenge, but is stymied by the limited scope of the work. After fleeing the commission after destroying his work in progress, Michelangelo is inspired with his new theme, thus beginning years of labor painting in painful positions, using that most difficult of media, wet plaster.

Based on the novel by Irving Stone, this picture far outstrips its source work in its immediacy and fascination. The prime source can be traced to the inspired casting of the leads: Heston is determined if a bit one-dimensional in his teeth-gritted portrayal of the artist. Absolutely splendid, however, is Rex Harrison, who gives a convincing and imperious picture of the paradoxical pope who has a sensitivity to art and at the same time leads armies of conquest into battle. Also notable in the cast is Harry Andrews, as the architect Bramante, who is always looking for a way to get Michelangelo into hot water. Rival Raphael di Sanzio is memorably portrayed by Tomas Milian, who would become a major Italian star of Spaghetti Westerns and crime dramas, even though he's rather poorly dubbed.

Few other works about art and artists are quite as compelling as this one, with the struggle between patron and artist taking center stage. Julius, impatient for the completed product, continually asks, "When will you make an end," to which the only response of the artist can be, "When I am finished." The traditional dependence of the artist on the patron, and the effort to make art in spite of the patron's typically bourgeois and uninspired wishes, is most clearly set forth in the brief conversation between Raphael and Michelangelo near the end. Where the film really succeeds is in demonstrating the symbiosis between artist and patron, as the pleasure that Julius takes in driving Michelangelo forward is readily visible. Their relationship provokes many memorable moments, most notably the sequence in which Michelangelo enthusiastically shows Julius his designs on a battlefield, as flaming shot rains down upon them. On occasion, there is a little too much self-awareness on the part of the participants, as both Michelangelo and Julius know full well that they're creating something extraordinary. A bit more subtlety here might have played better.

Director Carol Reed keeps the film, which easily could have become ponderous and tendentious, moving at a good clip. The two hours pass quite quickly, with plenty of production value, and human drama onscreen. A first-rate score by Alex North doesn't hurt, of course. This is the roadshow version, with a twelve-minute prologue of the life of Michelangelo slapped on (scored by Jerry Goldsmith), plus intermission and exit music. It has dated reasonably well, although the deeply religious may be offended by the portrayal of Julius as a military conqueror; Harrison does, however, hit a sympathetic note on occasion, such as when he reminds us that, as questionable as many of the Renaissance popes may have been, the alternative of popes serving at the pleasure of the French royalty most likely would have been even worse. There are a few shortcomings. There is never a good close examination of the entire ceiling, only a slowly spinning shot that never really quite lets one take in the work properly. Diane Cilento is shoehorned in as a would-be romantic interest, though someone at least had the sense to put a foot down and not turn Michelangelo into a heterosexual. But one can see the nervous studio at least insisting on the unrequited romantic angle, with Michelangelo married to his art and uninterested in love of any kind. Not a fair portrait, but probably as far as the line could be pushed in 1966 for a major roadshow release.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.20:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 70mm Todd-AO picture looks gorgeous, with eye-popping color and nice fine details and texture. The enormous production values stand out on the screen beautifully. Black levels are rich and deep and shadow detail is likewise excellent. Hardly a defect is to be seen, with speckles and other problems all quietly touched up digitally.

Image Transfer Grade: A+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanishyes
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both 2.0 mono and 5.0 English tracks are included. The 5.0 track really feels more like a 3.0, with little surround information to speak of. There's some occasional music in the rear channels, but it's quite limited. On the other hand, there is a very wide front soundstage, as was customary in Fox's Cinemascope roadshow releases. There's some mild hiss audible on occasion. There's some poorly-executed dubbing and looping but that's a defect of the original audio.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Bible, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Satan Never Sleeps, Hangman's Curse
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:00m:47s

Extras Review: The only significant extra besides the roadshow teaser and the wide-release theatrical trailer is a restoration comparison that shows the modern version on this DVD as compared to the pinkish transfer done in 1990. It's quite an improvement. A miscellaneous assortment of other trailers is there mostly to take up space.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

One of the great films about art and artists, this is given a fine transfer and restoration by Fox, though it certainly could have benefited from more extras. Why wasn't this part of the Studio Classics series?


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