Set in the period after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the film, “Sin,” paints a rounded characterization of Michelangelo rather than the hoary cliché of the solitary misanthropic genius holed up in his studio. This episode of the artist’s career has never been so dramatically or so convincingly told.
Il Peccato (Sin), the dramatic new film from the Russian auteur director Andrei Konchalovsky, offers a provocative and profoundly unconventional view of the great sculptor, painter, and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) during the midpoint in his career. While the Hollywood film, The Agony and The Ecstasy (1963), depicts the epic battle between the painter and Pope Julius II to fresco the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Sin centers on the little-known period after the ceiling’s unveiling when two rival noble families compete for the artist’s services with gold, flattery, and not-so-thinly-veiled threats.
Just as Michelangelo (played by look-alike actor Alberto Testone) prepares to return to work on Julius II’s Tomb—a grandiose project put on hold until he completed the ceiling—the Pope dies. The pontiff’s heirs, the Della Rovere family, offer the artist thousands of ducats and an exclusive contract to finish the Tomb. Enter Leo X, the first Medici Pope, whose family is also in control of Florence’s government. The new Pope soon decides to commission an architectural masterpiece for that city, a gleaming white marble façade for San Lorenzo’s Basilica. At first, Michelangelo turns the project down, but when he hears that his hated rival, Raphael, is being considered, he can’t help but accept the offer. The Della Rovere and the Medici families, the most powerful in Italy, are also bitter enemies. Unable to satisfy either party’s demands, the artist prevaricates, stretches himself to the limit and beyond, and is tormented by doubts, fears, and even hallucinations.
The heart of the film, and happily its most vital part, is devoted to the search high in the mountain quarries of Carrara for the finest marble with which to sculpt the statues for the Tomb and the façade for San Lorenzo. This episode in the artist’s career has never been so dramatically or so convincingly told. As Michelangelo’s recent biographer, William Wallace, points out, the artist was not merely a creative genius, but also a savvy businessman, building contractor, engineer, and entrepreneur. The drama of finding, extracting, and transporting a colossal 10-ton marble monolith (aka “the Monster”) from the quarries makes for emotionally riveting cinema. Even today, with the latest technology, one or two deaths occur in this process. Imagine how much more dangerous it would have been six centuries ago! Yet our hero risks his own life again and again by working alongside the men he manages and thus easily commands their respect. Michelangelo eats, sleeps, and frequently quarrels with his assistants, but he is a generous friend when they are in need. While the rival sculptor, Jacopo Sansovino, angrily accuses the artist of being greedy, selfish, and intolerant of competitors, we also see them drinking afterward. The film paints a rounded characterization of the master rather than the hoary cliché of the solitary misanthropic genius holed up in his studio.
Viewers familiar with The Agony and the Ecstasy and Netflix’s The Medici may find Sin‘s radical neorealism rather shocking. “I don’t want to see pretty portraits in the frame,” Russian auteur director Andrei Konchalovsky writes, “I want to see people in dirty clothes covered with sweat, vomit, and saliva. The smell must travel through the screen and reach the audience.” The spectacularly beautiful scenery in the high mountains (Monte Altissimo in the Apuan Alps stands in for Carrara) is contrasted repeatedly with the unbelievably squalid conditions of life in Rome and Florence. Human waste is frequently flung out of windows without so much as an “Attenzione!” The director presents an unfiltered look at a world filled with poverty, disease, violence, and deprivation. There are shocking contrasts drawn between the privileged lives of the rich and powerful and the stoic or desperate lives of the ordinary people.
While much of Mr. Konchalovsky’s neorealism works, I regret that we see more of Michelangelo acquiring his marble than working on it. After all, works of art are the most important part of an artist’s story, aren’t they? Moreover, the master considered himself a prisoner of Julius, his heirs, and the Medici; his misery in this period gave birth to the two extraordinarily forceful statues, the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave. The artist left them unfinished, which only adds to their power. Yet, we never see or hear of these masterpieces. While we watch the sculptor completing his larger-than-life, awe-inspiring figure of Moses for the Tomb, the film moves on from this accomplishment before the viewer can register its significance. As Paul Barolsky points out, this monumental sculpture embodies a triple shot of terribilità; that is, it combines the grandeur and fierceness of his original patron Julius, the anger of Moses descending Mt. Sinai, and the turbulence of Michelangelo’s soul.
The film ends with an unexpected tragedy that forces the master to reflect ruthlessly on his sins and his responsibilities to others. In a vivid but enigmatic hallucination in the mountains, he imagines himself confessing to the Divine Comedy‘s poet, Dante, whose work he knows by heart. While he has carved beautiful bodies out of marble, Michelangelo laments, they have not inspired devout prayers but rather impure thoughts. Frustrated by the poet’s cryptic response to his pleas, the artist surveys the magnificence of God’s natural world from the mountains’ dizzying heights. As the film ends, we see the master trudging the road to Rome and carrying a wooden model of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. The sinner has rededicated his life to Christ to become, in the latter part of his career, “God’s Architect” (to cite the title of William Wallace’s new biography).
For those who want to read more about this remarkable artist’s life, the best places to start are the outstanding biographies written during his lifetime by men who knew him well and were artists themselves. First, there is Giorgio Vasari Lives of the Artists (1550), followed by Ascanio Condivi’s Life of Michelangelo (1553), which the artist dictated to Condivi, and then Vasari’s revised bio (1583), which absorbs and corrects Condivi. All three are readily available in English, of reasonable length, and make for fascinating reading.
Michelangelo was also a serious poet. There are several recent translations of his complete verse. Walter Pater’s short essay, “The Poetry of Michelangelo,” offers penetrating observations on the meaning of the artist’s work in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, readily available online. John Addington Symonds’s classic nineteenth-century biography, Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, is also freely accessible on the internet. Symonds was the first author to have full access to the entire archive of Michelangelo’s letters and papers.
William Wallace has written several accessible biographies, including Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and His Times (2010) and Michelangelo, God’s Architect: The Story of his Final Years & Greatest Masterpiece (2019). Finally, there is the work of Paul Barolsky. His Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and Its Maker (1997) and Michelangelo and the Finger of God (2003) subtly examine the artist’s poetic imagination, including his contribution to Condivi and Vasari’s Lives, making the case that the works he carved and painted shaped his biography.
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The featured image is a poster for Il peccato (2019), courtesy of IMDb.