Sin, a New Film About Michelangelo, Reveals Genius as a Dirty Business
(Bloomberg) -- At its essence, the new movie Sin is a grand film about the decidedly unglamorous logistics of making art.
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, the movie follows the high Renaissance painter Michelangelo (Alberto Testone) as he moves between Rome, Florence, and Carrara, Italy, hustling to finish projects without getting killed or going bankrupt. The film premiered at the Rome Film Festival in 2019, but its U.S. theatrical release was delayed until now; it premieres on Film Forum and Laemmle’s sites on Feb. 19.
Unlike nearly every other failed cinematic attempt to depict artistic “genius,” a trope that inevitably entails furrowed brows and soaring classical music, Konchalovsky’s solution is to avoid the trap altogether.
Instead, Michelangelo spends most of the movie haggling with suppliers over costs, laboring over materials and sourcing issues, and assuaging, and occasionally enraging, his immensely wealthy patrons.
It is, in other words, an accurate depiction of what it takes to be a successful artist, and it’s one that contemporary viewers—inside the art world and out—might be well served to watch carefully. Anyone can have great ideas; real genius comes from those with the social graces, drive, and financial acumen to realize them.
The film, which is shot in Italian with English subtitles, begins as Michelangelo is finishing the Sistine Chapel. Already famous—his David stands in front of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio—Michelangelo is mercurial, but only up to a point. He puts up a fight when Vatican handlers force him to remove the scaffolding (“You can’t decide whether I have finished my work or not”), but when Pope Julius II (Massimo De Francovich) compliments it, Michelangelo is moved to tears.
But Julius II, who’s a member of the powerful Della Rovere family, is nearing the end of his life. When he dies, he’s quickly replaced by Pope Leo X (Simone Toffanin), a member of the even more powerful Medici family.
Once back in power, the Medicis enlist Michelangelo to begin a series of new projects including the (never completed) facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. The only problem? Michelangelo has already committed to, and received money for, the massive tomb for Pope Julius II, and the Della Rovere family is dead set on making him finish.
This doesn’t quite square with the official narrative of the tomb, which, in a far more modest iteration, was installed in 1545 in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli. But the movie’s exquisite settings and costumes more than compensate for any historical inconsistencies. Most of the film was shot on location in various parts of Italy including Carrara, Florence, and Montepulciano, and the cast is suitably filthy, caked in some combination of dirt, sweat, blood, and, most important, marble dust.
Fittingly, the real drama in Sin comes from Michelangelo’s attempts to source material.
The logistics of cutting a slab large enough for his sculptures (David is 14 feet high), dragging it on a cart to the coast, loading it onto a ship, and sailing it to Rome is a major undertaking, and the stakes are raised even further as Michelangelo constructs the infrastructure necessary to bring his largest stone yet back to Rome. Nicknamed “the monster,” he has to devise a pulley system that will lower the multi-ton slab down the mountainside; just as perilous, he has to somehow assuage the Della Rovere family that the slab is for Julius II’s tomb, while simultaneously convincing the Medicis that he’s working only for them.
For anyone who had the patience to sit through the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy (starring a particularly irascible Rex Harrison and an impressively tedious Charlton Heston), the drama between artist, pontiff, and marble quarry will sound familiar. But Konchalovsky is too canny to allow the film to sink into schlock or interpersonal drama, and despite Michelangelo’s transgressions, the only real harassment in Sin he’s subjected to is via his own conscience.
“Everyone admires your work,” one of his apprentices tells Michelangelo, even after he’s insulted his Vatican patrons and stormed away. “They say it’s divine.”
Of course, Michelangelo is only given such latitude because he shows up, and he does everything in his power to deliver on his commitments, a rule that extends to the present day. Jasper Johns, one of the most successful living artist of the last half-century, might self-describe his process as having “a certain amount of anxiety, or hesitation, or boredom,” but he’s produced thousands of artworks to nearly ceaseless praise. And indeed, the final shot in Sin is of Michelangelo, shuffling down a country road, carrying yet another new design.
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