The Agony and the Ecstasy, Carol Reed’s epic dramatization of the struggle between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) during the creation of the Sistine Ceiling, is a well-mounted, but not terribly convincing historical pageant. To start, it is difficult to believe that the “warrior Pope” Julius would have worried all that much about the creation of a mere painting. To assume otherwise is to project on to the Renaissance our modern valuation of art for art’s sake. In fact, at the time Michelangelo worked, he would likely have been considered little better than a highly talented servant.
Of course, if the film’s attitudes toward Michelangelo are suspiciously modern, they at least open a door on to a particularly rich historical moment. While never central, the film pays some attention to Julius’s ambition to weld the Papal States into a single entity, though the conceit that he is doing so to strengthen the Church against encroachments from secular monarchs rather than brazenly grabbing earthly power is highly questionable. There are also “guest appearances” by Michelangelo’s big name contemporaries, like Bramante and Raphael, while others (Leonardo, Ghirlandaio, Henry VIII of England) have their names dropped in to help fill in the tapestry. Certainly the physical recreation of the period is impressive (though as usual, suspiciously clean). Whether things add up to an understanding of the era, Julius or Michelangelo is debatable, however.
Indeed, the very focus on the tensions between Michelangelo and Julius crowds out any larger historical understanding. For example one simple question—why are Julius’s enemies fighting his efforts to strengthen Papal authority in Italy?—is not even asked, much less answered. On the other hand, the portrayal of either man’s psychology extends little deeper than mutual petulance. In fact, the one moment when the filmmakers try to suggest subjectivity is risible. Michelangelo gets the idea of what the Sistine Ceiling should consist when clouds take on the shape of God giving life to Adam. As if that were not tasteless enough, Michelangelo (in voiceover), staring awestruck at the special effect, starts to intone from Genesis, Alex North’s music swoons to raise the goose bumps, and the memory of Heston as the literal Voice of God in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments destroys whatever chance of credibility the moment might have had.
With the exception of that horrendous lapse, The Agony and the Ecstasy is best enjoyed as expensive spectacle. The photography, design and costumes are handsomely sumptuous, the kind of thing only big budget film making can provide. The battle scenes are effectively gratuitous, but they are nicely staged and the illusion we are seeing the Sistine Ceiling gradually coming together is ably handled. Heston and Harrison aren’t bad, especially given that their characters never really make much sense, even within the film’s ambitions. In short, overall, the film is a solid piece of craftsmanship, even if after it is finished, you’re not quite sure what those ambitions were.