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The Agony and the Ecstasy

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The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) starring Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison , Diane Cilento
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The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) starring Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison , Diane Cilento

Synopsis of The Agony and the Ecstasy

During the Italian Renaissance, Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) contracts the influential artist Michelangelo (Charlton Heston).  He wants him to sculpt 40 statues for his tomb. However, the pope changes his mind and asks the sculptor to paint a mural in the Sistine Chapel.  Michelangelo doubts his painting skills and abandons the project. Divine inspiration returns Michelangelo to the mural, but his artistic vision clashes with the pope’s demanding personality and threatens the success of the historic painting.

Review of The Agony and the Ecstasy

First, The Agony and the Ecstasy is about the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Done by Michelangelo, commissioned by Pope Julius II. That’s the backdrop for the real story. It’s actually the story of the conflict between two men. Both are trying serve God in their own way. Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) is painting ceiling as an offering to God. And Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) wants a beautiful work done. But he grows tired of waiting!

Pope Julius II: When will you make an end?
Michelangelo: When I am finished!

Rex Harrison to Charleton Heston

It’s the story of two stubborn men, fighting back and forth. There’s a background of wars and political intrigues. Both Rex Harrison and Charleton Heston give great performances. And those performances are what make the movie worth watching.

Pope Julius II: You see, my son… how well we understand each other… when you don’t shout?

Rex Harrison

And, the artwork in the film is visually stunning, as well.

The film does a good job of portraying how practical — and willing to bend principles, in order to achieve victory – Pope Julius II was. And how loyal to his vision — and pigheaded — Michelangelo was. Small wonder that these two butted heads.

There’s a wonderful moment, toward the end, where Julius and Michelangelo look at the nearly-completed work:

Pope Julius II: What you have painted here, my son, is not a portrait of God. It’s a proof of faith.
Michelangelo: I hadn’t thought that faith needed proof.
Pope Julius II: Not if you’re a saint, or an artist. I am merely a pope.

Pope Julius II: And this is how you see man? Noble, beautiful, unafraid?
Michelangelo: How else should I see him?
Pope Julius II: As he is – corrupt and evil, his hands dripping with blood, destined for damnation. Your painting’s beautiful, but false.
Michelangelo: I cannot change my conception.
Pope Julius II: You’ve taught me not to waste my time trying to change your conception. How did you arrive at this?
Michelangelo: Well, I thought my idea for the panel was that man’s evil he learned for himself, not from God.
Pope Julius II: Yes.
Michelangelo: I wanted to paint man as he was first created – innocent, still free of sin, grateful for the… the gift of life.

Pope Julius II: You make a better priest than I do, Michelangelo. Yet I have tried to serve Him in the only way I know how.


  • Charlton Heston (The Greatest Show on Earth) … Michelangelo. The visionary artist. He has an artistic vision, and he’s determined to follow it. Any any cost, including his health.
  • Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady) … Pope Julius II. He sees himself as a warrior pope, driven to war in order to keep the Catholic Church independent. And, to that end, he’s fought much — and suffered much. As he’s dying on his death bed, Michelangelo comes to visit. And intentionally anger him enough that he gets up! And recovers …
  • Diane Cilento (The Wicker Man) … Contessina de’Medici. Michelangelo’s love interest int he story. She tends to him when he’s ill. She inspires him to continue his work …. When they’re not fighting.
  • Tomas Milian (Amistad) … Raphael. The man who nearly replaces Michelangelo.

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