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Arriving in the U.S. almost simultaneously with his raved-about release Dear Comrades!, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Sin centers on another artist whose grand projects often competed with each other: Michelangelo, whose talents were demanded by one pope even as he had years to go on a job for that man’s predecessor.
A beautiful but decidedly unromantic look at artistic drive, the Italian/Russian production zeroes in on the great man’s demons without, as art-biographical cliches usually have it, crediting them for his genius. A captivating lead performance and a truly massive central metaphor make it a memorable arthouse film, even if the arthouses in this case (from Film Forum to Austin Film Society to Laemmle in L.A.) are all virtual.
RELEASE DATE Feb 19, 2021
Looking as if he’s been pulled right out of a 16th-century portrait of the painter, dead ringer Alberto Testone offers a shaggy Michelangelo whose body odor almost wafts through the screen. He’s been working around the clock on the Sistine Chapel, forsaking sleep and baths. He’s a year past deadline and has just decided he’ll need another year when some eminences arrive, insisting that his work is done as only agents of the Holy Inquisition can. The painter tries and fails to stop their men from tearing down his scaffolds, then flees the chapel in a panic, agonizing over having an inferior work presented by these men to Pope Julius II (Massimo De Francovich). Before long, an assistant comes to find him: The pope, far from being disappointed, has just declared the artist to be “divine.” (A word that means a bit more from a pope than from your Aunt Mildred.)
Julius, a member of the influential Della Rovere family, dies soon after, and his gangster-like nephew (Antonio Gargiulo) makes it known that Michelangelo’s first and only priority is to complete a vast suite of sculptures to adorn his tomb. The artist travels to Carrera, searching for the finest marble in the world. But there’s a new pope in town, hailing from another vastly powerful family: Pope Leo X (Simone Toffanin), of the Medici clan, soon summons Michelangelo and suggests a different commission. (Again, a pope’s suggestion means more than most people’s.) The sculptor accepts the job, knowing either master would be furious to think he was distracted by the other’s assignment.
Without getting too deep in the weeds depicting the two families’ rivalry, the film puts across how the conflict affects our hero. It tests his psyche, for one thing: Michelangelo, an anxious man prone to occasional visions, is in the habit of taking on far more than he can do and insisting he’s the only one who can do it — pride is one of the sins the film’s title refers to. But the rivalry also affects him in very practical ways — especially when it comes to his raw materials, the pursuit of which occupies much of the film.
Konchalovsky and his DP Aleksander Simonov shoot the action in a narrow 4:3 aspect ratio, which may seem odd given the movie’s painterly vistas — both overhead shots of thriving Renaissance cities and gorgeous scenes of mountainous countryside. But in addition to emphasizing the cramped, filth-filled urban settings in which the artist works (the filmmakers take note of hygienic realities that most period films politely avoid), this block-like frame makes the most of the film’s second lead: a gargantuan slab of Carrera marble that awestruck stonemasons dub The Monster.
Traveling to Carrera, where he’ll have the honor of sleeping in the bed of his hero, Dante Aligheri, Michelangelo meets up with a crew of masons he knows. Up on a mountain with them, he spies a gigantic chunk of marble, “as white as sugar,” that they’re about to split into several chunks small enough to transport. He insists that he must have it exactly as is.
Up to now we’ve seen conflicting hints that, while the artist could never be accused of the sin of sloth, he might indulge in greed and envy: Though he lives like a monk, he’s hoarding real estate, and the gaudy rings of popes and aristocrats never fail to distract him during important conversations. But here we see how greed interacts with artistic ambition: Michelangelo knows what he can make with this unprecedented piece of marble, and he avidly throws away other people’s money to obtain it.
The job of getting this unthinkably heavy thing to sea level may not be as epic or poetic as Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo moving his steamship over a mountain, but it’s a nail-biter all the same. The life-and-deathness of it briefly gets the viewer as tightly wound as the artist, who from the start has been convinced his many enemies are trying to kill him. (That may or may not be true, but there’s little doubt that spies are reporting his every move back to the seats of power.)
And while those who risk their lives for him know what they’re doing, the selfish arrogance of the feat suggests another meaning for the film’s unexpected title. It seems almost cruel to use the word “sin” to define this period in the life of such a seriously God-focused man — who knew all of Dante’s Inferno by heart; who looked at a sleeping beauty and saw the mother of Christ; who created some of the most enduring religious art works the world has seen. But hey, that’s Christianity for you. And those popes, spending vast sums to decorate their workplaces and tombs, aren’t depicted as being any more pious than their filthy but brilliant servant.
Production companies: Andrei Konchalovsky Studios, Jean Vigo, Rai Cinema
Distributor: Corinth Films (Available Friday, February 19 via virtual cinema)
Cast: Alberto Testone, Jakob Diehl, Francesco Gaudiello Federico Vanni, Glenn Blackhall, Orso Maria Guerrini, Anita Pititto, Antonio Gargiulo, Massimo De Francovich, Simone Toffanin
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Screenwriters: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Producers: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elda Ferri
Executive producers: Mauro Calevi, Olesya Gidrat, Simona Bellettini
Director of photography: Aleksander Simonov
Production designer: Maurizio Sabatini
Costume designer: Dmitry Andreev
Editors: Sergey Taraskin, Karolina Maciejewska
Composer: Edward Artemyev
Casting directors: Giuseppe Bisogno, Danny Stevens, Laura De Strobel, Laura MuccinoIn
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