Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Produced and directed by Robert Snyder.Written by Michael Sonnabend. 85 minutes. Not rated.
A plastic, masterful documentary on Michelangelo in which the artist narrates his life, works and times through the voice of director Robert Snyder, MICHELAGNIOLO (a Tuscan spelling) is a most moving and impressive spiritual and artistic experience. The composite text is drawn from Michelangelo's diaries,many other writings, conversations with contemporaries like artist-writer Giorgio Vasari (who had also been an apprentice to Michelangelo) and the works of Dante .

The images and the sound amount to a combination autobiography, a guided tour of Renaissance art, descriptions and exegeses, I suspect that the film also draws on uncredited sources, like Vasari's LIVES OF PAINTERS and modern scholarship. More, and without invalidating the great quality of this film, I have suspicions about its genesis, suspicions that set me doing detective work.

The official information is full of deserved, admiring quotes. It states too that Robert Snyder, (b. 1916) was awarded the 1951 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature ( presumably his first film) for THE TITAN: STORY OF MICHELANGELO. The facts are different:

In the beginning was MICHELANGELO, DAS LEBEN EINES TITANEN (The Life of a Titan) a documentary by an experienced specialist in art films, the German Curt Oertel. This film, which "avoided the double trap of hagiography and museography" and used light, photography and camera movement in a new way, was a model work. It was a German-Swiss coproduction, shot in Switzerland, and released in March 1940.

Later, the great American documentarist Robert Flaherty reedited Oertel's footage, prepared an English commentary (read by Fredric March) "while being vague about the original source of his materials," and THE TITAN was released in the USA in 1950." For this reason the film is usually referred to as a Flaherty film, which it is not. Credit is long overdue to Oertel, whose techniques have had enormous effect on subsequent films of this type made for both the commercial cinema and television." (David Stewart Hall: FILM IN THE THIRD REICH, 1969)

The Academy Award records show that the Oscar went to "The Titan (Robert Snyder, producer)" and in 1950 rather than in 1951. Flaherty died in 1951. Snyder then went on to making other documentaries on artists (Pablo Casals, Henry Miller, etc.) and others, like THE HIDDEN WORLD, on insect life.

The new MICHELAGNIOLO is an updated remake, in color (with black-and-white sections) of the black-and-white THE TITAN . Screen credits mention that the black-and-white excerpts comes from the Oertel movie (which they date wrongly as 1939) but nothing else.

For the new version, the original plans called for distinguished actors from each culture where the film would be distributed to appear on screen intermittently and do the voice-over. This impractical, illusion-destroying idea was replaced by just Snyder's raspy voice which provides a credible thread in spite of a most American pronunciation of some words,e.g."Il Divino" becoming "Eel Deveeno" .

This is an inside job. Just as we see and feel how Michelangelo would take a block of stone and make the statue latent in it emerge, the film,with its wealth of documentation, its techniques of three-dimensional photography, loving close-ups of details and the like, gives us the kind of analytical and synthesizing awareness that the unguided mind alone cannot follow in reality and that the viewing at a distance cannot capture sufficiently.

The life of Michelangelo is traced with spellbinding images and narration, from his childhood to his "Pieta" sculpted at age 21; his "David" finished three years later; his constant relationships with the Medici and the Popes.

Michelangelo's struggle, over decades, with the megalomaniac Pope Julius II who forced him to paint the Sistine ceiling (while Michelangelo kept protesting " I am not a painter") and charged him with the nightmarish plans to make a monumental tomb for him (Julius); the artist's constant harassment with impossible architectural commissions by other Popes; his return to the Sistine chapel to do the Last Judgment 30 years after the Creation; the turmoil of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Savonarola, Civil wars (Michelangelo was a general, against his old patrons the Medici); the process of creativity -- at least as much as can be grasped -- come through beautifully. So does the artist's lifelong pull by, and alternation, between pagan and religious works; or the censorship concerning nudity, which made Michelangelo give the ultimate reply: "So, clothes are nobler than the body and shoes nobler than the foot?"

Worried as I am about MICHELAGNIOLO's true paternity, I cannot deny that the work is not only 85 minutes of fascination but a totally humbling experience too.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel