Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison portray two of the Renaissance's most colorful figures in this historical drama based on Irving Stone's best-seller set in the early 16th century. When Pope Julius ll (Harrison) commissions Michelangelo (Heston) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist initially refuses. Virtually forced to do the job by Julius, he later destroys his own work and flees to Rome. Eventually resumed, the project becomes a battle of wills fueled by artistic and temperamental differences that form the core of this movie. Nominated for an Oscar Cinematography and named one of the year's best films by the National Board of Review.
There are several nice surprises worth enjoying and admiring in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy,' Carol Reed's 1965 adaptation of Irving Stone's biographical novel on Michelangelo. Arguably, the most notable aspect is Charlton Heston's performance as the celebrated Italian Renaissance artist. The legendary actor portrayed a wide range of historical figures, from Marc Antony to Thomas Jefferson, but he's probably best remembered for his portrayal of Moses and for starring in 'Planet of the Apes.' So his role here almost seems like the natural choice, given the production period and Heston's fame at the time, yet it still comes as somewhat of an accomplishment in his career.
Though playing an obsessed, quick-tempered artist may not — and perhaps, ever be — his best remembered performance, Heston brings the same level of conviction and gravitas to the role as he does any other. As he demonstrated in his oh-so-tiny cameo in 'Wayne's World,' no matter the dialogue, Heston's appearance always adds a memorable amount of seriousness — he just knows how to class-up a joint. And his notable acting chops are really the equal of anything we've seen from the actor. Heston's Michelangelo is a strong-headed individual, torn between following his passion to sculpt and the necessity of securing patronage. Most interestingly, there is a childlike, immature quality to his frustration, demanding his way like a toddler while also conceding to authority.
Such a first-rate performance is then supported and complemented by an excellent production team, another of several wonderful surprises. From the art direction of John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith and Dario Simoni to the costume design of Vittorio Nino Novarese, the entire look of the film is a glorious sight, furnishing each scene and conversation piece with a sense of realism, as if directly ripped from the pages of history. With strong editing by Samuel E. Beetley, some of the more spectacular sequences are with Heston feigning to paint the fresco. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy ('Cleopatra,' 'The Black Swan') captured all the splendor and beauty using the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process, marvelously preserving the production with stunning detail and rich, energetic colors.
Carol Reed takes advantage of the photographic system to transform the story of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling into an epic tale of a master artist's painstaking passion for his craft. While not up to the genius of his most famous work, 'The Third Man' — frankly, very few films ever are — Reed nonetheless displays an intelligent and patient approach to the material, balancing the viewer's interest on the history of the fresco with that of the personality clash of two cultural giants of the period. The real hook to Stone's story is the often antagonistic relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). Ironically, the two men fed and were inspired by their fiery friendship, so by film's end, they finally come to admire and respect one another in a satisfying conclusion.
In spite of this central premise, the movie opens on a short history lesson of the artist, as a narrator explains Michelangelo's birthplace and upbringing. Then we spend several minutes studying and analyzing some of his most famous sculptures, noting their intricate details as well as a few interpretations behind their process. The short introduction is yet another interesting if slightly misleading aspect of the production, as it enlightens audiences to Michelangelo's historical importance and influence. 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' may not be one of Carol Reed's or Charlton Heston's most memorable works, but it's a well-made, admirable and satisfying production on a contentious relationship that led to one of the most stunning pieces of art.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc, housed inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken directly to a static menu screen with options along the bottom and music.
Carol Reed's 1965 film paints Blu-ray with a beautiful, sometimes stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, though far as I can tell, it appears to have been made from the same master used for the 2005 DVD release. Nonetheless, the source is in rather excellent condition, displaying a sumptuous array of soft earth tones and vibrant primaries. Browns, tans, umbers and shades of sienna bathe the screen with realism while reds, greens and blues make each scene pop with life, and facial complexions are lifelike and naturally rendered.
Originally shot in the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process and presented in its original 2.20:1 aspect ratio, the video is highly detailed with superb clarity and resolution. Costumes reveal the tiniest thread, stitch and wrinkle, and every imperfection, pockmark and defect in the architecture of the buildings is distinct. The high-def transfer not only allows viewers to enjoy the costume and production design, but also allows them to appreciate the beautiful cinematography of Leon Shamroy. Although contrast is generally well-balanced and mostly consistent, the source makes known its age in a few spots, showing a bit of discoloration and the sort of yellow tint that only comes with time. On the other hand, black levels are full-bodied and true with strong detailing in the shadows, making the overall presentation is a beautiful sight to behold.
It would appear the film's title is an apt description for the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack because for the most part, there is much to exalt, but there is also one nagging issue that can't be ignored. Overall, dialogue reproduction is excellent, delivering even the softest conversations with intelligible distinction. However, there are a couple moments where voices display an odd and somewhat distracting reverb effect. It doesn't happen very often, but it's enough to be a notable concern.
As for the rest of the lossless mix, dynamic range is extensive and broad, exhibiting crisp detailing in the upper frequencies. Likely taken from the original 4-track stereophonic design, Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith's score fills the entire soundstage with warmth and fidelity, as every instrument is perfectly heard with crystal-clear transparency. Most impressive is a robust and rich low-end that provides weight and presence to the music, especially those really deep notes from pipe organs.
Based on the biographical novel by Irving Stone, 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' is a surprisingly well-made production that's more than the story of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Directed by Carol Reed and starring Charlton Heston as the renowned sculptor, the film focuses on the often contentious friendship of the artist and Pope Julius II. The Blu-ray arrives with a beautiful, sometimes stunning picture quality and a strong audio presentation. The standalone release could definitely benefit from more supplemental material. For history buffs and fans, the overall package is worth the purchase when the price is right, but the curious will want to give it a rent before deciding.