Produced to be one if the great “prestige” pictures of 1965, The Agony and the Ecstasy must have seemed like a sure bet. The film was partially based on a best-selling novel by Irving Stone, epics were still doing good box office (and winning lots of awards) and the director was Sir Carol Reed, who had directed the classic post-war thriller The Third Man. The cast included one of the biggest stars of the period, Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison, fresh off his big Oscar win for the blockbuster musical My Fair Lady.
But The Agony and the Ecstasy was only a mild box office success, and while it did pick up a few Oscar nominations, it really failed to make much of an impression and remains largely forgotten today. Which is a shame, because while flawed, The Agony and the Ecstasy has a lot to offer and deserves to be remembered.
The Agony and the Ecstasy tells a story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, or rather how Michelangelo (Heston) was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel by Pope Julius II (Harrison). But the film is about much more than that. This is a battle of the wills between two iron-willed men; it’s also a depiction of the violent politics of the Renaissance Era Papacy, which in many ways was more like an independent kingdom than a religious institution.
I think one problem with The Agony and the Ecstasy is that it might be a bit too wrapped up in its own importance. Or putting it another way, knowing the story lacks any major battles or exciting set pieces, the movie doubles down on its own “importance.” This becomes obvious almost immediately because the film actually begins with a 10-minute documentary explaining why Michelangelo is so influential to art history and why we should all pay attention once the movie starts. That’s, uh, not a good sign of things to come. And sure enough, the movie is dense with “important” moments. Audiences don’t like to be lectured to. That’s not why we go to the movies. That’s what school is for.
And yet, I also admire the movie for trying to tackle complicated subject matter without dumbing it down for the audience. It is fascinating to me that there was an actual warrior Pope who led armies into battle in the 1520s. And the acting from Heston and Harrison is truly superb. Michelangelo is not a painter, and he doesn’t want to do this painfully difficult project, but he still digs his heels in to create a masterpiece, one incredibly slow step at a time. Julius II wants a monument to the glory of God and also to his own rule as Pope, but would like for it to be finished cheaply and quickly, and certainly before he dies. He chafes under Michelangelo's arrogant and slow progress. And when the two start arguing, the film elevates into a thing of beauty. There are few actors who can dominate the screen with such righteous fury as Charlton Heston. Whether you like him or not, it’s hard to deny that he commands the screen. It takes a special kind of actor to take Heston’s punch and punch back just as hard (see Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments), but Rex Harrison rises to the occasion. But there is one big difference between the confrontations in the The Ten Commandments and The Agony and the Ecstasy, and this is where I applaud Heston as an actor - Michelangelo can’t win. He can be stubborn, scream and try to intimidate, but in the end, he has to lose, and Heston understands that. The Pope always has to win, and it needs to be believable. And in the middle of their endless bickering, Heston knows the exact moment when to wilt before Harrison’s authority. Sometimes he even slouches over and pouts like a toddler, which is a hilariously perfect acting choice for the character.
I know I am talking a lot about these arguments between Michelangelo and Julius, but there is a reason. These scenes are where the heart of the movie lies, it is when the film truly soars, and everything else just pales in comparison. Unfortunately, when Harrison and Heston are not on screen screaming at each other, the movie largely falls apart. Michaelangelo has an odd love story with a DeMedici countess (Diane Cilento, Hombre) who clearly loves the conflicted artist who could never love her back (because of his obsession with his work, the movie states, clearly skipping over the fact that Michelangelo was most likely gay). And Pope Julius finds himself arguing about Italian politics that are never fully explained and would require a PhD to fully decipher. The movie tediously plods along, waiting to be shocked back to life by another Heston-Harrison fight.
Since the movie is wrapped up in its own importance, it also tries too hard to inspire – with sometimes laughable results. In what is supposed to be a high point of the film, Michelangelo climbs through the Italian Dolomites, looking to escape from his commission to paint the ceiling. And then he looks into the sky as the sun is rising and in the shape of the clouds he sees God touching Adam's finger - the image that is to become the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel. And he is divinely inspired in a moment that is supposed to be transcendent and beautiful, and just ends up being laughably bad. I understand that this was the 1960s and special effects have come a long way since then, but those clouds look silly in any decade. It's an over-the-top moment that is made even more over-the-top by overwrought music and then just to top it all off, Michelangelo starts narrating passages from the book of Genesis for the audience. It's all supposed to be grand and important, but it is trying so hard. The movie so wants this moment to bring tears to audience's eyes...it wants it SO BAD! And it is completely ineffective.
The movie doesn't need to try that hard. It needs to take advantage of its assets - in this case, Heston and Harrison. There is a moment of transcendent beauty in The Agony and the Ecstasy, but it is a smaller moment, a moment of quiet tranquility when Michelangelo and the Pope quietly look at the great ceiling together by candlelight. The Pope's simple question, "Is that what he looks like to you?" leads to reflection on the true nature of God and eventually to grudging acceptance and mutual understanding between the two men. It's a short scene, with beautifully restrained music and a remarkable portrayal of two men who act like giants but are now realizing their own insignificance before God. It might be the best scene in the film, and it doesn't need to act "important" to move the audience.
I am sure there would be more to say about The Agony and the Ecstasy, but I feel it would get repetitive. Whenever Heston and Harrison share the screen, which is admittedly a lot of the movie, this film could be considered a classic. But the rest of the movie just can't equal these scenes and knocks the whole thing down a peg. I would still absolutely recommend it because during the moments when the movie is flying, it truly does soar.
Spoiler Alert! I am about the ruin the beginning of The Agony and the Ecstasy. The film begins with a battle over a small Italian city. Underneath a barrage of cannon fire, one army advances to the town, led by an imposing knight in black armor, who slashes his way through his enemies and down the narrow streets of the city. The army converges on the central plaza of the town, and quickly realizes that all resistance has ended. The battle is won. The black knight surveys his victory and stands before his men. Attendants race up, take off his helmet and then place the papal robes over his shoulders. His army bows, and the Pope blesses his men for the victory they have just won. This is Pope Julius II.
Now, that is an entrance.
And the scene is a clear example of the complexity of Pope Julius II as a character and Rex Harrison’s performance. It would have been easy to play Julius as a corrupt and violent man concerned only with his own legacy. It would have been just as easy to play Julius as a just and holy warrior of God. Julius is an interesting because he is both. His character is full of contradictions. He has just led an army into battle, but he celebrates with a genuine blessing for his soldiers and granting forgiveness for the sins they have just committed to win. But at the same time, the cause of this war has nothing to do with religion. It was just a small piece of the political struggle for 16th Century Italy that included the Papal States, France, Venice and the Holy Roman Empire. He is not fighting for the glory of God; he is fighting to maintain domination over central Italy and the tax and land resources that supply his power base. He understands that the Papacy of the time was in many respects a political entity just as much as a religious one, and he sees himself as just the man for these complicated times. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but I think Rex Harrison triumphs in the part. I don’t doubt for a second that his Julius II is a man who loves God. He is having the Sistine Chapel painted for the glory of God, after all. But he is also a man of the world who is not above selling church offices, bribery, bullying, lying, stealing and launching wars, and committing all sorts of corrupt acts in order to maintain power. Rex Harrison plays all these complex shades to the hilt, displaying more range than I’ve seen from him before. I’ve always liked Rex Harrison, but feel his diverse talent has been a bit overshadowed by the iconic status of his most famous role, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. But it is worth exploring his other work. He was a terrific actor, and he is just brilliant in this role. Forget about Higgins. Harrison's finest performance is in this movie. He's the clear MVP.
Michelangelo (showing Julius II his plans for the Sistine Chapel): You see, I couldn't give you something mediocre...even if it is what you asked for."
The mountain quarry where Michelangelo flees when he is seeking "inspiration" for the Sistine Chapel is the actual Carrara in Tuscany. Carrara was close to Michelangelo's hometown and was the source of all the marble for his sculptures.