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The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy on DVD

Carol Reed’s tale of the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is long and ponderous, but compelling enough to be worth a view.

And if you aren’t familiar with the works of Michelangelo, you owe it to yourself to see this flick! The first ten minutes or so are basically a short documentary on the sculptures of the great master, in the context of the Sistine Chapel project that he didn’t want to do because he didn’t want to paint.

But those sculptures in the opening section – WOW! Michelangelo was truly a genius and the things he was capable of doing with blocks of marble were, well, simply “marbleous.”

Once we're blown away by the real artist's skill, we switch to the story itself which, while plodding in places, is still an interesting historical drama.

The great Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo, at the height of his fame – a man so loved and renowned that he can talk back to the Pope (Rex Harrison) and not find himself burned at the stake. This Pope, Julius II, is supposedly a better warrior than Pope and indeed he seems more like a Roman Emperor than a religious leader in his conquests and, indeed, his attitudes.

But he’s also a patron of the arts, and his pet project is to have the ceiling of his favorite chapel painted – by his favorite artist.

The problem is, as mentioned above, Michelangelo doesn’t want to paint, he wants to sculpt. But the gig is something that, for various reasons, he can’t resist or refuse, so up he goes on a scaffold to turn the ceiling into yet another masterpiece.

Except that he doesn’t. Those around him are amazed at what he is creating, but Michelangelo isn’t; he is uninspired and unhappy and runs off to contemplate, leaving the work undone and the chapel a mess. And leaving Pope Julius practically frothing at the mouth at the artist’s cheek.

But Michelangelo hasn’t merely buggered off; he’s looking for inspiration – and he finds it in a matte painting vision of nature that looks like something out of a John Pitre poster. So he heads back to Rome to finish the deed even if it kills him.

Despite an apparent cast of thousands and plenty of armies on the movie, the movie is short on action and long on emotion, kind of an epic small film. Heston is great as the artist; besides the actual footage of the real artist’s work he’s by far the best thing about the movie. Harrison tends to chew the scenery a bit, but on the other hand this Pope is not described as being a particularly pious or holy man – as mentioned he's more an emperor than God’s servant.

On the other hand, the movie looks terrific and the anamorphic widescreen picture really does it justice when viewed on a big, 16x9 TV screen. It’s presented in its original 2.20:1 aspect ratio, which almost fills the 16x9 TV screen, and the colors are rich and the image is bright and sharp.

Audio is available in mono or Dolby Digital 4.0 surround and though we didn’t detect any surround the front three channels are used very well, with dialogue mostly restricted to the center and the film’s sweeping musical score making nice use of the front main stereo speakers.

The Agony and the Ecstasy, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
138 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.20:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 4.0
Starring Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Harry Anderson, Diane Cilento
Written by Philip Dunne, directed by Carol Reed.


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Updated May 5, 2010