The Agony and the Ecstasy - 1965

Released October 7, 1965

Screenplay by Philip Dunne

Directed by Carol Reed

Music by Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North

20th Century Fox & Dino De Laurentiis Cinematografica Studios, Italy

The Pope tells a very reluctant Michelangelo to paint some figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling accompanied with "appropriate designs." Or else.

Freelance Michelangelo

Forced into a commission from the Pope, Michelangelo has to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, protesting "I'm a sculptor, not a painter!" But that doesn't dissuade this Pontiff who can't be told "no."

Michelangelo gets to work, standing on a platform 60 feet in the air, working with a team he has hired, painting in the first of the twelve apostles. Shortly afterward, with only one figure partially done, he is miserable, knowing he has botched it and is working from a mediocre idea that isn't even his own (the subject was given to him by the Pope). Everyone else was quite happy with the work, but not Michelangelo, so he scrapes the face off the giant painted figure in the middle of the night and runs for his life. This act has put Michelangelo on the bad side of the lethal and tricky Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), who is now dedicated to making Michelangelo finish the commission, saying to everyone "or he will hang!"

Though the film is overlong in the fashion of over-long 1960s epics*, director Carol Reed does well with two main aspects of the tale; conveying Michelangelo’s convoluted (to put it mildly) human relationships with everyone else (particularly with his semi-girlfriend/pseudo-sister-advisor Contessina de' Medici, played by Diane Cilento), and showing just how hard it is to get a client to pay you when you're a freelance artist (an ongoing sub-story is the effort by Michelangelo to get the Pope to pay up on money owed, which is hard to do when the Pope has the power to forbid any discussion of money).


The downside of this grandiose historical costume drama is how much the "epic" aspects interrupt the human drama. Frequently there are hordes of soldiers and peasants crisscrossing the Todd-AO 70 MM screen**, showing us the political results of the Pope's problems with other rulers, none of which is clearly delineated (except for the first scene where the Pope cuts through the opaque diplomatic blather by a French Ambassador and lets us know in the audience the Pontiff doesn't suffer fools gladly). But because that part of this 16th century world isn't really clear, it drags down the film's pace and lends a slightly schizophrenic quality to the story whenever it pops up. I get the impression it is the classic problem of a novel*** translated to the screen: the film is too short to get everything in that makes the novel work, and the film is too long to work as an exciting, quick-paced movie.

Hiding from the Pope

After wrecking the Apostles mural, the Pope's officers hot on his trail, Michelangelo hides out at a marble quarry among a gang of workmen, swinging a hammer, carving out the gigantic slabs of marble that are used to build homes, palaces, and of course, statues. Forced to flee again, Michelangelo has a Hollywood epiphany**** while atop a mountain, and now has an idea for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that is both artistically satisfying and sure to get him off the Pope's hate list. But first he has to turn himself in.

This leads to a dangerous (and funny) scene in which Michelangelo is brought to the Pope in the middle of a battle, and the two start haggling over the cost of the massive substitute painting Michelangelo is proposing and has sketched out on sheets of paper which Julius becomes engrossed in. With flaming cannon-shot landing around them and soldiers hustling to and fro, the two argue over the Sistine Chapel design (and of course Michelangelo's fee) while the Pope's commanders are begging the distracted Pontiff for permission to shoot back at their enemies.


Charlton Heston does a good job with a difficult task, which is to make Michelangelo look both powerful enough to survive in a difficult and competitive world of art constantly mixed with high-stakes politics while surrounded by opinionated and influential people, and thin-skinned enough to be the typical sensitive artist. Or even "extra" sensitive, as this Michelangelo can get annoyed easily and can turn misanthropic. This artist can't ever quite get things the way he wants them, which is primarily to be left alone so he can get it done the way he wants it done. He is regularly having to shoo away onlookers and erstwhile 16th century art critics, who helpfully let him know he's doing it all wrong. This gives Heston the actor a nice platform (literally, he's 60 feet in the air) to unload all of his umbrage at the gaggle of art critics the Pope has gathered down below on the Sistine Chapel floor, not just giving them a blistering lecture on art, but on theology.

At other times, Heston's Michelangelo often stands in a defensive posture, hugging himself tightly, trying to shrink out of the ridiculous situation he has been unwillingly pulled into by the fashions of art, court intrigues, and the desire of the powerful in Renaissance Europe to outdo each other. He just wants to get back to carving marble, and when he goes off-duty, director Reed shows him in a peasant's tavern house, drawing the people around him and drinking cheap wine.

The artist Raphael (actor Tomas Milian) also makes an appearance. He is an educated and sophisticated young man who lends the older Michelangelo a few words of advice (or is it really more in the nature of a confession?) Raphael wants Michelangelo to know that the need to make art is akin to an addiction. Either way, it tells us that Michelangelo is not the only game in town in this Renaissance world of artist one-upmanship, though at present Michelangelo is the most sought-after trophy.

Getting the job done

Later, it is Raphael that Pope Julius II uses as a weapon to get Michelangelo back on his feet when depression, bad food and illness lays him up for a long period of time and drags the Sistine project to a halt, which is dramatically over-budget and has blown past the original time estimate Michelangelo gave.***** This is also how Carol Reed injects some much needed humor into the cinematic proceedings:

The Pope: I have treated you harshly and helped bring you to this sorry state (he looks at Michelangelo, exhausted, laid up on a cot in his dirty and primitive looking studio. Michelangelo looks to not have had a bath in a long time. He is wrapped in something that stopped being a blanket a long time ago).

The Pope: I admit my responsibility and regret it.

Michelangelo: Yes, Holy Father.

The Pope: Now your trials are at an end. I bring you glad news. I relieve you of your commission, you are free. You will continue to receive full payment, of course...

Michelangelo: But I haven't received any payment!

The Pope: Full payment, I say, until you've recovered your health.

Michelangelo: But, Holy Father, what about the ceiling!?

The Pope: I have considered other arrangements, your health is more important.

Michelangelo: What arrangements?

The Pope: I have considered your young colleague Raphael...

Michelangelo: (outraged, full of energy and on his feet): Raphael?! Paint my ceiling?!

Director Carol Reed

Like some other epic films (Cleopatra 1963 comes to mind), there is the problem of the epic scope tromping over the human tale. Perhaps the film's budget being quite large (approx. $10 million in 1964 dollars, roughly the equivalent of a $100 million dollar production in 2021) the money and making it show on the screen interfered too much with the just telling the story.

The first section of The Agony and the Ecstasy isn't even Heston and Rex Harrison showing their bona fides as epic Hollywood actors (between the two men there are a lot of long, expensive films) but instead there's a mini-documentary about the "real" Michelangelo with some great photography of the Sistine Chapel and the sculptured works of the artist, plus a narrative voice hinting at the conflicts ahead in the actual movie, which then finally starts with the Jerry Goldsmith music swelling and the logo splashing onto the screen.

And within Carol Reed's movie is a very large irony that only art history students and people who have been to the Sistine Chapel themselves probably know: the darkly colored Michelangelo painting on the ceiling that we see in Reed's film isn't "correct." Even though Reed got to literally film the actual ceiling, a restoration and cleaning project completed in the 1990s on the ceiling showed that beneath centuries of candle-smoke and just plain dirt were much brighter and vivid colors, and so the cinematic Michelangelo we see painting the "dark" version would not exist until all those centuries of accumulated grime could be added, the "true" and original Sistine Chapel ceiling painting by Michelangelo was a much flashier affair.


The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo

The Agony And The Ecstasy - HD Streaming

Lust for Life - a novel by Irving Stone

Lust for Life - HD Streaming


* Patience for those multi-hour 1960s epics can be a very personal thing. Once I got used to the length of The Agony and the Ecstasy after a few viewings, I'd have been happy for another hours worth of Heston and Harrison tangling with each other, Heston dribbling paint from the high-vaulted roof, and especially some extra information to straighten out why Julius is at war all the time. The explanations in the film are too brief and seem to indicate this constant martial activity is to claim back lands lost in previous wars. But wars with who? An awful lot of shooting and cannonades are shown on screen without us ever knowing for sure who is being shot at, let alone why. Its as if that's just what this Pope does with his time when not officiating mass or trying to get Michelangelo to speed things up on the ceiling.

**The Agony and the Ecstasy did a worldwide gross of $8.1 million in 1965, $2 million dollars less than the production budget.

***The novel of The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, was published in 1961. Stone is also the author of the Van Gogh novel Lust for Life which was made into a Kirk Douglas film in 1954.

**** Michelangelo seeing his composition for the Sistine Chapel ceiling appear in the clouds over this mountain is both a feat of impressive special effects and also rather hilarious, unintentionally, I assume.

***** Michelangelo originally estimated the paintings of the ceiling to take one year or less. In reality the project took four years to complete.

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