Oscar winners Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison square off in a battle of wills in The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 film directed by Carol Reed that ended up being nominated for five Academy Awards. It is a dramatic telling of the struggles the great Renaissance sculptor and artist Michelango had during the creation of his most famous work, the beautiful frescos that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The lavish production was an epic of a different nature, having been adapted from Irving Stone’s bestselling biography of Michelango which had been number one for 83 consecutive weeks.
Michelango (Charlton Heston) was already one of the most famous sculptors in all of Europe when Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) commissions him to sculpt an ornate marble tomb. Nicknamed the “Warrior Pope” for his active foreign policy, Pope Julius II was also a patron of the fine arts, having rebuilt St. Peter’s Basilica during his time. Changing his mind on a personal tomb that will take years to build, the Pope instead orders Michelango to paint frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Michelango protests the order, claiming he’s a sculptor first and foremost, showing little interest in painting the Sistine Chapel. The Pope strong-arms the brilliant artist into working on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and orders him to depict the twelve Apostles in frescos. The Pope seems to have an awareness that cajoling Michelango to work on the Sistine Chapel will produce a work of everlasting fame. The Pope recognizes the man from Florence as the artistic genius he is and wants something that will glorify the faith long after the Pope himself has passed away.
For an epic of this scope, the world of The Agony and the Ecstasy is a small one with fewer characters than normal. We get brief glimpses into Michelango’s life, from the students working under him to the main woman in his life. Contessina de’Medici (Diane Cilento) is a noblewoman married to another man but her affection is clearly directed at Michelango, whom she nurses back to health during an episode of poisoning he suffers from toxic paint. The movie drives home that Michelango was married to his art and possibly incapable of loving a woman as much as his single-minded passion for art. There is little romance per se, a modern adaptation would almost certainly spice things up in that department.
The crux of the narrative revolves around the internal struggles within Michelango and then his external struggles with other forces; from critics that call his art a sacrilege to the faith for depicting pagan concepts, to usurpers like another great artist in Raphael possibly taking over his commission. Painting the Sistine Chapel was back-breaking work that took almost four years for Michelango, director Carol Reed goes to great lengths to portray his suffering. He suffers from temporary blindness and exhaustion as the work nears completion.
Charlton Heston vividly portrays the great artist, determined to paint his vision of the art on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. In another year he might have won an Academy Award for this role. Rex Harrison was riding high off his Best Actor Oscar for the preceding year’s My Fair Lady but I do not think much of his casting as Pope Julius II. Harrison had a tendency to play himself in most of his roles and this film is no exception. His performance is competent without being transcendent, a safe choice for the big-budget epic, the one problem with The Agony and the Ecstasy.
The Agony and the Ecstasy was one of the last religious epics that Hollywood would produce of this size and scope. The movie handles its subject in a much more nuanced approach than the sword-and-sandal films of the preceding era, striking a balance between the differing viewpoints of Michelango and Pope Julius II as the two have a hand in producing one of Western civilization’s greatest artistic triumphs. The dialogue is nearly impeccable, with an economy and literary polish not seen in modern film. There are some quirks which date the movie, including a dry prologue covering Michelango’s many sculptures in a documentary. Audiences in 1965 might have eaten that up as interesting but it would never be included today.
Twentieth Century-Fox has graced The Agony and the Ecstasy with an exquisite film transfer of the highest order. The Todd-AO film production always looked gorgeous due to legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-nominated work and it has never looked better than this magnificent 1080P presentation.
This film had lavish production values in all phases of the craft, garnering five different Oscar nominations in technical categories such as Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Every dollar of the film’s budget is on screen in glorious detail, from the recreation of the Sistine Chapel’s famous paintings to panoramic shots of the Pope leading his soldiers into battle. It was always intended to be pure demo material and remains a first-rate example of the finest eye candy.
The Todd-AO process was originally shot in 70mm film, producing greater clarity and resolution than normal 35mm film could ever hope to produce on Blu-ray. After a shaky start with a number of poor transfers, Fox has possibly become the most consistent studio for vintage film transfers (when they put their mind to it). This Blu-ray transfer has an extremely film-like image, replicating the fine-grain structure and pulling out immense detail in every frame of film. There isn’t a single trace of halos in the naturally sharp, large-format photography.
The reference video encode takes up almost all the available space from a BD-50. The pristine presentation is flawless without a digital artifact in sight, even upon close inspection. It replicates the new film scan’s Hi-Def master with uncanny precision, enabling a viewing to be enjoyed on the largest projection screens. The level of high-frequency content is incredible from edge to edge of the 2.20:1 aspect ratio. Superb color rendition and perfect contrast levels lead to a period-appropriate color palette.
The new transfer appears to be from a very recent film scan of the original camera negative, possibly at 4K or higher. Technicians have performed a small miracle in bringing out the lush texture and original detail without unduly overprocessing it. Video quality should win awards and will definitely be a contender for the best one of 2014. Film purists and videophiles alike have to own this disc in their collection.
Alex North’s evocative musical score is finely represented in an excellent 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack that confines most of the dialogue and action to the front soundstage. It is one of the noted composer’s better scores for my money and provides the perfect emotional accompaniment for Michelango’s conflicts with Pope Julius II. The film’s original theatrical mix was a 6-track Westrex recording for 70mm film showings.
Impressive dynamics and cleanly-recorded dialogue are the hallmarks of the mix, though a couple of lesser moments rear their head during moments of choral music. Composer Jerry Goldsmith handled the opening documentary’s score. It is a minor shame that Fox did not include North’s score in isolated form.
A Spanish dub in Dolby Digital 1.0 at 192 kbps is included with a French dub in Dolby Digital 2.0 at 224 kbps. An Italian dub in 5.1 DTS at 768 kbps is a third offering. Hidden Japanese subs can only be accessed if you have your player set correctly. The main subtitles include English SDH, Spanish, and Italian. They display in a white font and remain inside the framing of the film at all times.
For a movie that many consider a classic, Fox hasn’t gone out of their way to include many supplements. An isolated score would have been a killer special feature on this movie. Given the scope of this epic featuring a pivotal moment in art history, a specialist or historian might have provided better context for some of the ground covered in Carol Reed’s film. I guess the budget went entirely to restoring the film, which is a trade-off I will accept in this case.
Teaser (01:15 in SD)
Theatrical Trailer (03:28 in SD)
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.