Blu-ray Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy

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Produced at great expense in 1965, The Agony and the Ecstasy is an epic telling of Michelangelo’s struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel, a monumental project that spanned four years (1508-1512). Based on the novel by the same name by Irving Stone, it was directed by Carol Reed (who would capture Oscar gold three years later with Oliver!). Charlton Heston makes a fiery, passionate Michelangelo, while Rex Harrison authoritatively assumes the task-master role of Pope Julius II. In terms of telling this dramatic chapter of history, Reed’s style is dated. Yet the do-or-die drive that possesses Michelangelo to persevere (even at great cost to his health) is conveyed during a relatively entertaining, though overlong, 138 minutes.

Aside from the several minutes of instrumental music that serve as the “intermission” about halfway through, the easiest way to reduce the running time is by jettisoning the film’s opening “documentary” sequence. For the first 12 minutes, Agony attempts to summarize Michelangelo’s artistic journey up to the point at which Pope Julius II commissions him to paint the chapel’s ceiling. On Blu-ray, it’s actually pretty convenient to simply skip this opening. Images of Michelangelo’s art and staged scenes of artisans at work are coupled with a slightly hokey narration. It’s the kind of thing that is alright once, but doesn’t wear well upon repeat viewings.

Agony and Ecstasy cover TMR.jpgThe meat of Agony traces Michelangelo’s reluctance to accept the Pope’s commission, considering himself a sculptor rather than painter. He even flees the project after vandalizing it himself, an act inspired by an experience with a barkeep’s spoiled wine. There’s not a huge amount of forward momentum, plot-wise, once Michelangelo is inspired by a glorious sunrise and returns with an entirely new conception for the ceiling. But his constant clashing with the Pope and other religious officials manages to provide a consistent spark of interest that sustains the film.

Leon Shamroy’s Academy Award-nominated cinematography (the final of his record-tying 18 nominations, four of which he won) looks quite splendid on Fox Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray. The detail and clarity is, at times, startling—most significantly during on-location shots, such as the marble quarry at which Michelangelo hides out. The only times Agony shows it age involve matte shots, where a bit of wavering graininess is visible. A few source print flaws pop up now and again, but this is mostly a joy to look at.

The Academy Award-nominated score by Alex North (his ninth of 15 total nominations, none of which he won; an Honorary Oscar was awarded him in 1986) is well served by the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. Though James Corcoran was nominated for Best Sound for Agony, some of the ADR fails to blend will in an otherwise well-balanced mix. There’s a scene early on between Charlton Heston and Diane Cilento that sounds particularly processed and artificial. This isn’t a fault of the lossless mix, just something inherent in the original tracks—still, it’s a bit distracting. The mix is reasonably immersive and always free of distortion or other issues.

Almost nothing in the way of supplements accompanies The Agony and the Ecstasy. All we find are two trailers presented in standard definition, one of which is a teaser made up only of scrolling text. Despite the lack of extras, fans of ‘60s historical epics should be pleased to have this on Blu-ray.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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