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above: Alberto Testone as Michelangelo in Sin (Il peccato), a 2019 film directed by Andrei Konchalovsky (FilmItalia/Corinth Films)

Reviews

The Sufferings of a Sculptor

SIN (IL PECCATO)
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky ◆ Written by Andrei Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva ◆ Produced by Alisher Usmanov ◆ Distributed by Corinth Films

Despite its potentially salacious title, Sin (Il peccato) is thankfully not another sordid tale about an artistic genius lured into fleshly temptations, having a crisis of faith, or battling with the demons of addiction. Far from it. In Sin—writer and director Andrei Konchalovsky’s portrait of Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet Michelangelo (1475-1564)—we are instead shown a sympathetic portrait of an eccentric genius, morally rigid and deeply committed to his craft.

Battling with spiritual and worldly demons, Konchalovsky’s Michelangelo walks a difficult path navigating the upending effects of his otherworldly talent. The historical Michelangelo was often not viewed as charitably, but whether or not Konchalovsky’s sympathetic treatment is deserved is a question best left to historians.

Now at age 84, the prolific Russian filmmaker Konchalovsky has made 36 projects and is still actively producing. Sin, shot in Italy with an Italian cast and dialogue, was first screened in 2019, but its release in the United States was delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic. Konchalovsky may be best known in the West as the cowriter of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev, a biographical film about a monk and master icon painter and his travails in 15th century Russia. There are undoubtedly parallels between these two films and artists, since these two films roughly bookend Konchalovsky’s decades-long career.

Sin’s narrative takes the viewer through various episodes in Rome, Florence, and the marble quarries of Carrara and Pietrasanta. As the film begins, it is apparent that Michelangelo is in a precarious position amidst the shifting power dynamics of early 16th century Italy. The ruling Della Rovere family’s grip on power is under threat with the impending death of Pope Julius II, and the Medici family is maneuvering to retake the reins of power in Florence, as well as pushing Leo X into the papal office.

The powerful men of these families compete for Michelangelo’s services for their ostentatious displays of wealth and dominance over one another. They demand his loyalty, more than one man can possibly produce.

Michelangelo also has to fend off the backbiting of his jealous competitors such as Raphael and Jacopo Sansovino, who are constantly looking to undermine him, get him bogged down with projects unbefitting of his talent, or to otherwise damage his reputation and working relationship with the Pope. All of this is compounded by Michelangelo’s stubborn and tempestuous personality, his tendency to grow frustrated with his assistants, and his taking on much of the labor of his projects himself, as he did with the Sistine Chapel frescoes.

A heated exchange at the beginning of the film occurs between Michelangelo and Raphael, as Raphael has just convinced Pope Julius II to have the scaffolding torn down in the Sistine Chapel and to halt Michelangelo’s work on the project. “You are here to make fun of me!” Michelangelo exclaims to his fellow master. “You are the one stealing ideas from me, from Leonardo, from Perugino! You have no ideas of your own!” Raphael replies, “That’s not true, I steal only from you!”

At a tavern in Carrara, Michelangelo meets with the sculptor Sansovino, who has been awarded a papal commission in Michelangelo’s place, a collaboration with Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo. Sansovino nervously presents Michelangelo with renderings and plans for sculptures. Upon viewing the renderings, Michelangelo callously lashes out at him (and all of his competitors) by saying: “You don’t have that thing. … You lack strength … titanic strength! … You shouldn’t do this job.” Sansovino’s talent, in another time and place, may have been considered superlative, but next to Michelangelo he is doomed to a secondary tier—a drunken, slovenly Salieri to Michelangelo’s Mozart—and his resentment boils over.

Biographical films often try to do too much—covering a broad sweep of history in two hours often does an injustice to the subject matter. But in terms of its approach to the narrative, Sin takes place within a compact five-year period of Michelangelo’s life, from the end of his work on the Sistine Chapel to his work on the tomb of Pope Julius II, as well as the never-completed work on the facade of the Medici Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Konchalovsky was uniquely aware of the demands of making a historical film but could not take the historical liberties with Michelangelo that he did with the relatively obscure Rublev.

Michelangelo’s genius was well recognized and celebrated in his own time. He was one of the few artists of his day to have a biography written about him while he was still alive, and numerous well-researched volumes have been written about him in the centuries since. The contemporaneous accounts and records of his dealings were retained down to a great level of detail. So the challenge was to create a historically accurate biographical portrait of a man about whom a great deal is known, while still retaining the freedom to fantasize and explore the more fluid aspects and inner workings of his character.

While the film’s style at first feels blandly professional, almost like a made-for-TV movie, a unique and effective narrative structure makes the film work. The uncanny resemblance and bravura performance of Alberto Testone as Michelangelo also stands out. Testone embodies the artist physically, giving the palpable sense of a man who is a spring wound too tightly.

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above left: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), attrtributed to Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545, oil on panel (Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain)
 

The bulk of the film consists of fairly standard dramatic episodes which lends to its accessibility, but it breaks away at certain points to venture into more mystical territory, moments of fluidity which are particularly effective. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said about cinema: “A phenomenon is recreated truthfully in a work of art through the attempt to rebuild the entire living structure of its inner connections.” It is for this reason that Sin works very well as a film, for the relationship between Michelangelo and the forces affecting his life is recreated in a manner that is at times poetic, yet at the same time straightforwardly relatable and authentic.

With Sin, like in Andrei Rublev, Konchalovsky concentrates on the more mundane, but also more humanizing and relatable aspects of the character of the artist. The narrative depicts Michelangelo contending with the ugly, corrupt, and often chaotic forces within his society that beset his path through life, which both make possible and consistently antagonize his creative impulses. Pope Julius II effusively praises him as “divine” one moment, then thrashes him with his cane the next.

But like Rublev, amidst all this adversity, Michelangelo is reaching for the divine. A recurring theme in the film is his obsession with Dante Alighieri, the immortal Florentine poet of the Middle Ages, whose work he commits to memory and whose spirit he calls out repeatedly to visit him. In an especially striking scene, the two great figures finally have an encounter high atop the marble quarry. “I thought I was going toward God, as you did, but I was actually going further and further away. I wanted to find God, but I only found Man,” Michelangelo proclaims to the stoic spirit of his idol. “My creations are beautiful.… but they don’t open the path towards God.… Show me the path!” But the elusive figure of the ancient master has only one word of advice from the beyond: “Listen.”

Michelangelo teaches us that the man who is seen as great by others must first demand greatness from within himself, and sustain it, however impossibly. Compare Michelangelo’s attitude to that of the present day, where those within our contemporary culture who are deemed “great”—athletes and entertainers, certainly no longer true artists—are now often given full license to fail, often blaming mental health breakdowns.

Sin reminds us that there once was a time and place when failure was not an option, when bailing out on one’s commitments meant imprisonment, punishment, banishment, or death. Such systems were perhaps illiberal, unjust, and inhumane, but they also helped forge a colossally strong society represented by artworks that will endure forever—creations which seem to surpass mortal capability. Could Michelangelo have succeeded in reaching the aesthetic and spiritual depths of his creations if, instead of a thrashing, the Pope had given him a therapist, medications, and the latitude to chill out on the beaches of Cabo for a few months? We’ll never know.

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above: Tomb of Pope Julius II, marble funerary monument by Michelangelo, work began in 1505 and was completed in 1545; San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (photo by Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons)

Standing in the presence of Michelangelo’s funerary monument to Pope Julius II inside the Roman Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, a project that took 40 years to complete, one is overwhelmed by the power of the work and can understand why this man’s talent was so coveted. It is hard to imagine the most powerful men in the world today competing for the loyalty and services of a street artist like Banksy, or commissioning some charlatan’s non-fungible token as a monument to their existence on earth.

As Giorgio Vasari said about Michelangelo’s Pieta in his Lives of Three Renaissance Artists: “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.” As Michelangelo shows us through his life and work, this cannot come about without unimaginable personal sacrifice.

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