Movie Review: “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

Intro and Plot Summary

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The Sistine Chapel, one of the most famous works of art of the Italian Renaissance.

Just got done watching a fabulous triumph of film-making from 1965 – “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” the film adaptation of the novel by Irving Stone. Headlined by Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison, this particular film resonated with me strongly, as I shall explain further ahead.

The film is set in Renaissance Italy, and Pope Julius II (more warrior than priest), has decided to commission someone to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His man for the job is Michelangelo Buonarotti, who (from the film’s context) has been making sculptures for the pope for years. Michelangelo at first refuses, claiming he is not a painter, but a sculptor. Pope Julius II ignores Michelangelo’s protests, and conscripts him into painting the ceiling. The first plan for the ceiling is to paint the twelve Apostles, but Michelanglo quickly becomes frustrated with this plan and destroys his work. Michelangelo flees Rome to escape the wrath of an angry Julius, and eventually has a quasi-religious experience by looking at a cloudscape from atop some mountains. The clouds make out the image of God extending his hand out to grant life to Adam, and sends Michelangelo’s creative impulses into overdrive. Instead of painting the twelve Apostles, Michelangelo intends to paint the Biblical story of Creation. He returns to Pope Julius, makes amends, and becomes obsessed nearly to the point of death to paint the ceiling. Continually, Julius and Michelangelo lock horns over the progress of the ceiling, and several times Julius becomes so enraged at Michelangelo’s insolence he withdraws the commission. Michelangelo demonstrates himself to be a man of incalculable energy, and the completion of the ceiling becomes a single-minded obsession. Eventually (after many ups and downs), the glorious ceiling is finished, and Pope Julius holds Mass underneath it. Pope Julius, nearer to death than he was at the beginning of the film, commands Michelangelo to do his next task: sculpt the pope’s tomb.

Thoughts on the Painting and Modern “Art”

Great works of art and architecture from ages past remind me of how far we have fallen culturally in terms of artistic accomplishment. Most art today, to be blunt, is smut and garbage, produced by perverts and no-talents who never outgrew the teenage urge to be “edgy.” I recall one work of “art” was made by a woman, who titled the work “My Twenties.” The “work of art” was a semen-stained mattress covered in used tampons, condoms, and empty liquor bottles. Let’s also not forget “The Holy Virgin Mary,” where the Virgin Mary was painted using elephant feces, and flanked by numerous images of female genitalia.

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Raphael’s “The School of Athens”

Compare that trash above to the works made by the old Italian Masters. These men were not merely some dudes with a funny hat and an easel – they were jacks of all trades, who understood that good art requires a portfolio of talents to produce. Engineering, mathematics, organization, planning, knowledge of paints and some chemistry, knowledge of the mechanical properties of materials, and sundry other talents are necessary to turn a block of stone into a lifelike statue, a blank plaster wall into “The School of Athens,” or some raw gold and uncut gemstones into fine jewelry. A man like da Vinci had more talent and brains in one of his eyelashes than any contemporary “modern abstract artist” possesses.

What is “The Agony?”

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I will paint it. I must paint it. I will finish it.

Like I said above, this film resonated with me strongly, as I was once a PhD student in engineering. Seeing Michelangelo tortured by the immense task ahead of him was a struggle I could certainly to relate to (though to be fair, I didn’t have to make one of the greatest works of art in world history to get my diploma).

By my analysis, “the agony” is the mental anguish (at times nearly unbearable) that is felt by intelligent people with a strong urge to create. They know they have the skills to do their task. They know they have to do the task, whether it is by personal ambition, or that the task is commanded by God Himself. But the immensity of the effort leads to much torment and furrowed brows. I felt that in graduate school when I first started getting into my PhD work. Writing papers and writing my dissertation at times made me feel like the smallest person on the planet, much like how Michelangelo probably felt when confronted with an enormous blank ceiling. And also much like Michelangelo (especially toward the end of my PhD), I was continually hounded by that most dreadful question: “When is it going to be finished?!”

“The agony” is felt by all people who create original work, whether it is talented artists and musicians, or students in the sciences and engineering. It makes sense in retrospect that such people would feel such an emotion, as they must continually try new things to push the envelope. Unfortunately for us, trying new things often leads to lots of failed attempts, since most new ideas don’t work out that well. That leads to the frustration, the rage, and of course – “the agony.”

I have often wondered at times why I couldn’t have an easier, more blissfully ignorant life as someone born with a more average intellect. “Why must I do this?” “Why has God picked me? Can’t he find somebody else?” “Why does God put my through this suffering? Does he mock me with my torment?” But thinking such thoughts its counterproductive. If you are someone who creates for a living, learn to embrace the suck. “The agony” is here to stay.

Michelangelo (in the film) confesses that he feels the emotion of romantic love dead inside of him, another emotion I can relate to. As I have written before on this blog, I used to want to have a wife and children, but ever since engineering school started back in 2004, my work became my life. I began to feel there was just no room anymore for love. Combined with great intelligence, this compacts “the agony” immensely with self-imposed solitude – after all, its lonely at the top.

…and “the Ecstasy?”

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“The Creation of Adam,” the most famous aspect of the finished product.

“The ecstasy” is why we do it – why we endure “the agony.” It is the feeling is unreserved triumph at witnessing the completion of a monumental task, the credit for which is yours alone. Whatever the task may have been, such as painting the Sistine Chapel, building a business to profitability, losing a large amount of weight, or completing a PhD, such enormous efforts put a feeling of splendor into one’s soul that people of normal intelligence and low ambition, unfortunately, will never feel in their lives.

I’ve  felt “the ecstasy” several times in my life. Once when I achieved my goal weight. Once when I finished undergraduate engineering. And again when I finished my PhD. The feeling is akin to an immense weight being lifted off one’s shoulders, while simultaneously being lifted to a higher plane. It is the culmination of a struggle sometimes spanning years, sometimes even decades (e.g. Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla), finally revealed in all its glory in a firework explosion of color and brilliance.

Conclusion

I give the movie five stars out of five, and strongly recommend it to anyone. While I am not a historian of Renaissance Era Europe, the screenplay appears believable. I feel I have met a kindred spirit in Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Michelangelo, as I have at times felt as tortured as he did when confronted with the insatiable urge to create. I recommend the movie to anyone who is currently being confronted with a great task which they have no choice but to do, and to do well.

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