'The Vatican Museums 3D': Film Review

Courtesy of Governorate of Vatican City
A short and factually skimpy greatest-hits tour through the Vatican Museums' gargantuan collection

Works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and non-Ninja Turtle namesake Caravaggio are the stars of this guided visit to the Vatican Museums, shot with the latest 3D equipment

A handful of world-famous art-historical treasures get their stereoscopic close-up in director Marco Pianigiani’s The Vatican Museums 3D, a short and factually skimpy (and occasionally flat-out wrong) greatest-hits tour of the gargantuan collection of the Musei Vaticani. No doubt more spectacular than a simple picture book for those certain they’ll never make the pilgrimage to the Rome-encircled art shrine, which attracts over 5 million visitors every year, this is otherwise an oddly conceived prestige project that makes one question whether cinematic 3D is really necessary for some of Europe’s most famous two-dimensional paintings to be truly appreciated. Presented in an event-type format similar to that of high-profile plays and operas screened in cinemas, this has already debuted in countries such as France and Australia and will bow stateside Dec. 10.

The logical starting point of the film is the statue of Laocoon and His Sons, from antiquity. It was unearthed in the early 16th century in Rome and was bought by Pope Julius II, who placed it in a courtyard that he’d transform into a sculpture garden that would later become the foundation of the Vatican’s enormous art collection.

Shown from various angles, with dramatic lighting and even more dramatic zooms and accompanying music, the ancient sculpture certainly impresses in 3D, though a voiceover (by Simone d’Andrea in the original version) and occasional direct-to-camera commentary by Professor Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, provide only scant contextual information. The only interesting tidbit offered is that the popes started to collect ancient art because they saw themselves as the heirs of the Roman emperors, with their Catholic empire also an empire sine fine.

A few other ancient sculptures are given a similar treatment, including the Augustus of Prima Porta, though given the facts that the 3D treatment works best for works that are actually three-dimensional and the Vatican has the largest collection of ancient sculpture in the world, relatively little time is spent on them before the film moves on to the main course: works by da Vinci, Michelangelo and their contemporaries.

Though the transition is well-handled, since Michelangelo was directly influenced by many ancient sculptures in the Vatican, on a more general level, this is where things start to go badly wrong. Short interludes have already shown a man (actor Paolo Casiraghi) in close-up, and it now becomes clear he’s supposed to represent an archetype of “the artist.” But the inserts, which also feature shots of artily lit earth, fire and water, are more distracting than illuminating and become simply laughable when Casiraghi has to pretend he’s a sculptor. Even worse is the sight of Casiraghi mixing oil paints and applying them to a canvas during a discussion of Raphael’s Stanza della segnatura, which contains only frescoes, for which neither canvas nor oil paint were necessary.

These kinds of factual errors, or at the very least misleading editing choices, are surprising, given that the museum is a co-producer and its director a presenter. But it doesn’t stop there: One of the film’s most egregious examples of misinformation comes during the section discussing Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta, which is technically not even in the Musei (it’s in the Basilica of Saint Peter). To make matters worse, the film suggests that it was signed by the artist because people thought it was an “ancient work,” a statement many Michelangelo biographers would disagree with (Marta Alvarez Gonzalez, for example, suggests that a fear of the work being attributed to the late 15th century sculptor Cristoforo Solari led the young artist to finally sign it).

The statue of the young-looking Mary with the deceased Christ sprawled across her welcoming lap allows the filmmakers to trace the work’s influence on other artists in the collection, and thus follow Caravaggio’s Entombment; Van Gogh’s Pieta (after Delacroix more than Michelangelo); Chagall’s Red Pieta and Dali’s Crucifixion. This segment isn’t without its problems either, as statements such as "Caravaggio painted each painting as if it were his last," or "each brushstroke makes us understand Van Gogh’s desire to be closer to God," rather oddly suggest that screenwriter Donato Dallavalle had some sort of direct portal into the artists’ very private emotions. The Van Gogh comment also highlights how the rest of the film is practically devoid of any discussion of religion, offering a decidedly ecumenical look at art history, which, seeing as how the Vatican is the world’s oldest and largest religious institution, is certainly an odd (if certainly audience-enlarging) decision. 

The bulk of the film looks at the last and most famous of the 50-odd rooms of the Musei: The Sistine Chapel (director Pianigiani also directed a 10-minute 3D film of just the chapel in 2012). Way too many shots of the doors opening and closing as the camera zooms in or out aside, the feature here again runs into one of its biggest problems: Why apply cutting-edge 3D technology to things that were conceived on a flat space to begin with and turn them into things with entirely artificial depth? Though it admittedly sort of works for single figures against neutral spaces, detaching them from their backgrounds (the floating Christ in Raphael’s Transfiguration being a prime example), it looks abnormal and disconcerting when applied to several figures behind one another or figures in front of figurative backdrops. The fissures on, for example, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and wall often ruin the sense of artificial layers the 3D effect tries to create because they run in straight lines across the figures in the back- and foreground.

And if anyone is wondering why the fourth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, Donatello, is conspicuous only by his absence: the Vatican Museums have no Donatello sculptures in their collection.

Production companies: Sky 3D, Sky Arte HD, The Vatican Museums
Cast: Paolo Casiraghi
Director: Marco Pianigiani
Screenplay: Donato Dallavalle
Executive producers: Francesco Invernizzi, Emiliano Martorama
Director of photography: Massimiliano Gatti
Editor: Luciano Larotonda
Music: Flippermusic

No rating, 64 minutes

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