HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: The Agony and the Ecstasy
HTS Overall Score:75
In the 60’s the names Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison was an instant box office draw. Heston was only a few years past “Ben-Hur” and Harrison was fresh out of starring in “My Fair Lady” and those were runaway hits. During the 1960’s Epics were the film of choice and you would guess that “The Agony and the Ecstasy” would follow in that path, especially since it’s pertaining to one of the greatest artists who ever lived and about his most famous work in the Sistine Chapel. However, one of the films greatest assets is also its greatest liability, for when one is doing a film about watching paint dry, it can sometimes come off as, well, watching paint dry. Carol Reed tried to instill some controversy into the film for our two main characters to clash about, by making Julius II a bit of a brazen and overbearing warrior pope, in an effort to spice up film a bit. Sometimes it worked, and there was some incredible chemistry on screen, and other times it failed miserably and just seemed as if Pope Julius II was a complete jerk. As such I can see why “The Agony and the Ecstasy” really didn’t do too well at the box office. The 1st hour of the film is simply mesmerizing up until Michelangelo and the Pope really start to have creative differences and then it goes a bit too far into extrapolation of the events and tends to wear it’s welcome a bit. However, by the end of the film it makes the viewer really wish they were there at the Sistine Chapel to marvel at one of the greatest paintings ever done, in my opinion.
Most people know the basics of the story. Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) decided to employ the arts of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti (Charlton Heston) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. While painting was not his main trade, he was mainly an architect and sculptor, the Pope was very persuasive to say the least, especially in an area that was predominantly Catholic. Engaging the commission, Michelangelo soon became frustrated and out of sorts with the projects and vanished into the mountains to think. Surmising that Michelangelo had abandoned the project, Pope Julius II sent men after the missing artist. After months of leave, Michelangelo appeared before the pop again, this time with the inspiration for not only the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but the walls and terraces as well, a visual masterpiece that far outclassed the earlier assignment. Recognizing Michelangelo’s vision, the Pope allowed the modifications and let the artist go at it.
As simple as this sounds this was a huge undertaking, with literally years of time spent in, what seemed like, a never ending project. This garnered much criticism by the catholic clergy leadership, who complained about the money spent, the style of artistry and, of course, the length of time taken in the project. For all of his anger and bluster, Pope Julius II had as much invested into this project as Michelangelo did and defends his choice with all of his weight. As time goes on, the agonizing torture of painting up high next to the ceiling for months on end start to wear on the artist’s body. Collapsing from the strain he is barely able to recover and it looks like he may never paint again, until the sheer dishonor of having to give up his masterpiece gives Michelangelo all of the motivation he needs to get back up on that scaffolding and complete his work.
The film itself is what I like describe as being the victim of creating something epic out of something that isn’t. The story itself is grand, but from all accounts it was a simple matter of a master artists dedicating his life and soul his creations. As one can assume, watching a film where we see nothing but Charlton Heston with a paint brush doesn’t a 2.5 hour film make. As such the addition of an unrequited romance and the sword clashing of Michelangelo and the Pope have been greatly exaggerated. Charlton Heston adds a great deal of physicality and emotion into his role, bringing the classic artist to life in a way not seen before on screen, but Rex Harrison’s classic abrasiveness tends to come off as a bit unrealistic as Julius II, almost unnecessary at times. There are several scenes where he softens his tone and the chemistry between the two is palpable, but the conflict seemed out of place and drags the film down at times.
Still a very good film, it just falls shy of that level of greatness we were hoping from the star studded cast, “The Agony and the Ecstasty” sits on my shelf with pride and, for all of you who have never been to the Sistine Chapel, it truly is worth the visit. Seeing the magnificent work that was done with such primitive tools is truly breathtaking and gives this film a whole new feeling and tone.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=15031[/img]The 2.20:1 AVC encode for “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is another one for the history books. The film was originally shot on 70mm film and the restoration and remastering of the movie looks incredible, it hovers just underneath “Lawrence of Arabia” level of well done, with only a few minor flaws to drag it down to a 4.5/5 score. There is a few scenes where the light levels flicker a bit, and there’s a few smudges on the print, but other than that the movie is just about flawless. I reviewed “The 300 Spartans” last week and if you compare the two films that were shot only a few years apart, you can see that the colors and contrasts are much more accurate, with the reds and blues coming through clearer and with superior color timing. Black levels are exquisite, with large amounts of shadow detail and absolutely no black crush that I could see. As with 70mm film stock the grain level is excellent with the fine grain being less noticeable and looking simply stunning.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=15032[/img]The audio for the film is quite good, but there are a few flaws of the day backed into the track. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is quite engaging for a 1960’s epic and the musical score certainly lights up the whole sound stage. The dialogue has a few balance issues where I believe the effects were recorded a bit too high and you had to either strain to hear the dialogue during some scenes, or be rocked out of your chair by the effects. Also there are a few scenes where you hear a slightly warbling echo from the chamber that they are in, reflecting off the equipment. But, besides those gripes the track is quite consistent and has some very decent surround usage, especially in the battle scenes and musical score lighting up all the rears with some heavy usage and even some very deep LFE.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” never achieved the level of fame that it was hoping to be, but it is still a great trip down memory lane, with some fantastic visual set pieces. Letting us peak into the rigors and trials that were experienced during the creation of Michelangelo’s most famous piece of work, the film is pulled up by the stellar cast and Charlton Heston’s commitment and passion in the role. The video alone is worth the purchase price, in my opinion, and certainly belongs on the shelf of all you who have a taste for the classic cinema pieces of that age. Definitely recommended.
Starring: Rex Harrison, Charlton Heston, Diane Cilento
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Irving Stone
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Spanish DD Mono, French DD 2.0, Italian DTS 5.1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 138 minutes
Blu-Ray Release Date: March 4th, 2014
Buy The Agony and the Ecstasy Blu-ray on Amazon
Recommendation: Check It Out
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