EDITOR’S NOTE: In the following exchange, Paul D’Agostino, David Boffa, and Thomas Micchelli provide separate critical takes on Andrei Konchalovsky’s new biopic of Michelangelo, exploring its cinematic and art historical merits.
SIN as Cinema
There are many reasons to expect something other than an idealized, art historically rigorous, possibly hagiographic representation of Michelangelo Buonarroti in Andrei Konchalovsky’s SIN (Il Peccato, 2019). The title alone, one that serves as an intriguing narrative thread throughout the film, might already be a good hint that the subject in question won’t quite rank among saints.
Another hint that Konchalovsky will provide a non-standard portrait of the artist and his era might be the director’s long tenure as a filmmaker and, not least, his writing credits on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), the latter of which seems to evidence compositional traces in SIN, especially with regard to certain POV shots in certain key sets.
A third and perhaps obvious reason is that idealized literary and cinematic treatments of Michelangelo, quite frankly, are anything but lacking. Why would Konchalovsky bother providing another?
Viewers will be pleased that he doesn’t.
Thanks in part to apparently prodigious production resources, as well as to extraordinary access to sites in Carrara, Monte Altissimo di Nago, Montepulciano and Arezzo, not to mention to many sites in Florence and Rome, Konchalovsky and his crew furnish an exquisite, bounteous viewing experience — one that the director, in a statement provided by the production company, likens to a medieval ‘vision’:
SIN […] was conceived as a ‘vision,’ a genre popular in the Middle Ages which culminated in Dante’s Divine Comedy. […] I wanted to express not only the essence of Michelangelo’s being, but also the colors, smells and flavors of the era he inhabited — bloody and cruel, but full of inspiration and beauty.
Consequently, among the things you’ll glimpse in the film are socially gritty, generally filthy, presumably malodorous 16th-century Italian settings, from Roman ruins to narrow Florentine alleyways. Scarce few characters in the film come across as clean-cut or refined. Rafaello, Michelangelo’s younger, more self-confident rival most certainly does, but the grimy setting seems to mock his cleanliness and snobby decorum.
Michelangelo himself, as well as many of his assistants, family members, peers, contractors, compatriots, and patrons are seen in a rather different light (or often lack thereof). They are dirty, their dwellings dark, and their behaviors and dispositions are quite the same: greed, betrayal, deception, and vengeful competitiveness are commonplace, from petty grievances among penny-pinchers to vicious antagonisms among regional rulers. Indeed, one of the more revolting historical figures portrayed in SIN is also one of the most powerful, Pope Leo X, whose clammy sliminess and blusterous mucosity render him more of a Tim-Burtonesque Penguin than a politically formidable embodiment of papal infallibility.
All that said, SIN is not overwhelmed by drudgery, muck, suffering, and skullduggery. Michelangelo miserates physically and mentally, but he has moments of elation as well, none of which coincide with yet another peer or patron praising him as ‘un genio.’
There are scenes of exasperating beauty, from rolling landscapes to ‘divinely’ marble-filled mountainside quarries. Many of the characters, not infrequent wisecrackers, are jovial and comical enough to come off as amiably cartoonish. And many of the cinematographic elements, from broad, sweeping vistas, to middle-grounded long takes and set pieces, to meticulously detailed, breathing stills, recall the compositional brilliance of greats like Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
There are also moments of otherworldly beauty, from angelic apparitions to definitively Dantean revelations. The possibly obvious sources of sublime visions for a film like this, however — e.g. Michelangelo’s frescoes, sculptures, and drawings — factor into it very little. He’s not often seen directly, actively working on them, and few scenes are devoted to merely beholding them. Their relative absence proves to be one of the more remarkable, and remarkably effective, aspects of this biopic. When they do appear, they gleam with miraculous sheen.
From warts-and-all to splendor and awe, SIN mires and glories in indulgence. Yet such indulgence might also come at a cost, particularly with regard to narrative integrity and chronological flow. Do expressiveness and metaphor supersede historical accuracy? Do lacunae and conjecture in service of a ‘vision’ challenge documented facts? To what extent are ambiguities, stretched truths, and oversights in films like this problematic or misleading?
I asked David Boffa, a Renaissance specialist and Michelangelo expert, and Hyperallergic Weekend co-editor Thomas Micchelli to weigh in on these matters, while also providing their own takes on the film in general.
For the record, we all recommend you see SIN. It’s currently available to stream in Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema.
SIN as History
One of the more entertaining anecdotes about Michelangelo in Giorgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists — a compendium of famous painters, sculptors, and architects — is also one of the most easily falsifiable. The story concerns the signature on Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s Pietà — the lone sculpture he signed. According to Vasari, Michelangelo only inscribed it after overhearing a viewer misattribute the work to “Gobbo from Milan.” The sculptor subsequently snuck in to the church and added his name.
The physical evidence of the signature is entirely at odds with this story: the strap on which it appears and the quality of the lettering indicate it was not hastily executed in the middle of the night. And although Vasari knew Michelangelo personally, he wrote that anecdote 50 years after the Pietà’s completion (and after the artist’s death). Thus while the tale says something about Michelangelo, it says more about Vasari and his desire to portray the artist as modestly signing only out of necessity.
For all his inaccuracies Vasari was both entertaining and — by contemporary standards — a diligent researcher. Andrei Konchalovsky’s SIN operates in that Vasarian mode of biographical storytelling, illuminating both the artist and the author and grounded in historical authenticity even while taking significant liberties.
The film’s Michelangelo moves beyond easy stereotypes: the sculptor’s ability to induce awe and terror is on display, but so are other facets we’ve come to appreciate in him. In one scene he laughs as quarry workers pass around a copy of I modi, a 16th-century erotic book with engravings of sexual positions. In another he argues over how his family spends his money, while later he provides the dowry for a young woman’s marriage.
From Michelangelo’s extensive writings (and those around him), we know this rings true: he could be funny, amiable, generous, miserly, angry, melancholic, suspicious, pious, and more (although a notable omission is the absence of his great capacity for romantic love, primarily for younger men).
Beyond a portrait of Michelangelo, the film offers a commendable depiction of the realities of 16th-century marble quarrying. Some of its finest moments are the long, beautiful, and harrowing scenes of workers cutting huge blocks of marble from the mountain and then painstakingly transporting them, always at great peril — a reference to actual quarrying undertaken for the façade of San Lorenzo around 1518.
This is backbreaking, dangerous work: people died in those quarries and still do today. It highlights the scores of anonymous quarry workers as well as Michelangelo’s lifelong interest in stone itself: while we see few scenes of him carving, we see plenty of him as engineer and laborer in the quarry.
These details help me more easily appreciate — or at least tolerate — the movie’s fictionalized elements. They also remind me that this is as much about Konchalovsky and co-author Elena Kiseleva’s ideas of Michelangelo as it is about the artist. One notable anachronism that enriches the story is the presence of a small model (about 20 minutes in) of the artist’s Florentine Pietà, which wasn’t started until 25 years after the events in the film. Perhaps this is the filmmakers signaling to us to view their Michelangelo not only as that of the late 1510s, but also of the decades that followed, when he was plagued by fears (real and imagined) for his life and doubts about his art, faith, and salvation.
To return to Michelangelo’s signature: it reads “Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine, was making.” That falsely modest “was making” at the end — an ancient trope that implied a work was still in progress — best sums up the artist’s entire life, as well as the many lives he’s lived in his countless biographies and appearances in fiction. Andrei Konchalovsky’s SIN is a beautiful if flawed addition by a filmmaker whose own life and career span nearly Michelangesque proportions in length and output, and it too ends without easy resolution, as though still in progress.
SIN as Metaphor
Just what, in Andrei Konchalovsky’s SIN, is Michelangelo’s sin? If you’re acquainted with the intimate details of the artist’s life, you wouldn’t be off the mark to assume that the title refers to his fear of damnation for his homosexuality — a capital offense at the time — most notably manifested in his infatuation with the young nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri.
And yet Tommaso doesn’t appear in the movie, and in fact, he entered Michelangelo’s life almost two decades after the completion of Moses (c.1513-15) — one of the handful of artworks to be finished onscreen — when he was 23 and the artist was 57. And while the film presents Michelangelo in the constant company of two young, handsome apprentices, there is little to suggest an attraction for them other than his penchant for forgiving almost all of their transgressions against him.
The opening scenes depict violent arguments between Michelangelo and his financially dependent father and brother over their use and abuse of his money, hand-in-hand with a rapid-fire accounting of his potentially reckless real estate investments in and around Florence.
Given the ample evidence of Michelangelo’s money-grubbing and shrewdness as an investor, these early moments suggest that Konchalovsky would be dealing with the artist’s life in a refreshingly frank, human way.
But the hard rasp of the historical record begins to disintegrate as the film progresses. The actual events of that time — the conspiratorial plots and counterplots, assassinations and invasions, religious schisms and deadly plagues — beggar the imagination, and while they are touched on as needed, Konchalovsky pursues a more metaphorical slant, with one foot planted in squalor and the other in fantasy.
Disputes over fees, loans, and insinuated embezzlements surface like clockwork throughout the plot, conveying the impression that Michelangelo’s sin is not lust after all, but avarice.
In a convoluted scene set in Carrara that echoes the descent into the Underworld from Dante’s Inferno, the artist takes a nighttime journey through a lightless tunnel and across a harsh mountainside while reciting Canto III’s overused inscription on the Gates of Hell, ending up in the quarry at the break of day.
The Fourth Circle of the Inferno is the prison for the souls of the avaricious, who are forced to shove great weights against one another for eternity — imagery that can be associated with the extended sequence in which Michelangelo attempts to transport a giant slab of marble out of Carrara.
And yet, by the end of the film, neither sex nor greed seems to be Michelangelo’s most grievous error, but rather the idolatry aroused by his own art — that his figures inspire not prayer but, as he confesses, “sinful thoughts.”
“I thought I was going towards God,” he says, “But I was actually going further and further away. I wanted to find God, but I only found Man.”
This statement, in an irony that I’m not sure was intended, precisely reflects the near-universal agreement on what makes Michelangelo modern. To watch him question the humanity of his life’s work, underscored by subsequent scenes of grandeur and piety, provoke an unsettling challenge about the essence of art — whether, to achieve perfection, it must be wholly dematerialized, untethered from all desire.
The tremulous drawings and unfinished stones of the artist’s old age bear this sensibility out, but its profoundly radical, radically conservative stance can also be seen as the flip side of the same hubris that tempted Michelangelo to dream of carving a colossus on the side of a marble mountain. In a fallen world, as embodied by Konchalovsky’s Italy, the disconnect between art’s spiritual quest and its mortal failings lies at the core of the unstable, sacral-carnal image we hold of ourselves.
SIN (2019), directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, is currently streaming at Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema.