The film The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965, is the epic portrayal of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II based on the historical novel of the same name, by Irving Stone, published in 1961. Their working relationship is documented as the struggle between two powerful and egocentric men. While one is the leader of the Christian world, the other means to change the world through his art. The paradox is that the Pope jealously believes Michelangelo to be the man that can capture the nature of God more successfully and translate that to his followers. The film follows their warring relationship and Michelangelo’s progress on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as notes the inspiration that Michelangelo gets from God for his work on this ceiling.
In this film, Michelangelo is first commissioned by the Pope to execute a design for the 12 apostles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo accepts this commission begrudgingly; he has no choice but to accept. Michelangelo begins to paint the apostles on the ceiling, yet he is unsatisfied with his work. One night, inspired by the metaphor ‘if the wine is sour, spill it out,’ he trashes the work he has completed so far and runs into the mountains, away from the Pope and his commission. While in the marble quarries of Italy, he sees an image of God and Adam in the sky; Michelangelo believes this to be a sign from God, which he will then translate into the now famous Birth of Adam scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo returns to Rome with his plan for the ceiling and begins his masterpiece.
While the film allows the viewer to envision Michelangelo’s artistic processes- like gessoing the walls, creating cartoons for the figures, and even sculpting figures from marble blocks- there are seriously contrived undertones to parts of the story. For example, Michelangelo’s romantic relationship with Contessina di Medici is completely fabricated for the sake this ‘Hollywood’ production. The viewer watches the developing relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II, but their exchanges become repetitive. ‘Literary license’ has always allowed history to be changed for the sake of plot, including the order that Michelangelo paints the ceiling as well as the age of Pope Julius II at the time of Michelangelo’s commission. Additionally, the film is unable to properly convey the passage of time. While the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted from 1508-1512, dates are hardly mentioned in the film and the viewer is left unaware of the length of time that Michelangelo is at work except through the graying of his hair.
Towards the end of the film, Pope Julius II tells Michelangelo that he wishes he could have been an artist, that Michelangelo is able to inspire faith in others in a way that even the Pope cannot. The Agony and the Ecstasy portrays Michelangelo as a divine messenger- a prophet, carrying the message and images of God to the masses. Even Michelangelo’s...