Michelangelo looks up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and decides it’s . . . a disaster. The perspective is all wrong. It looks completely different from the floor than it does from on top of the scaffolding where he painted it. He must start painting over the frescoes immediately. When visitors arrive, he pleads with them not to come in. A year! Just one more year to complete the project! The pope must not be allowed to see the travesty he’s created! He gets drunk, runs away, and hides in shame.
Others see the work somewhat differently: as the masterpiece of all masterpieces. The pope calls Michelangelo “the Divine.” And still Michelangelo grouses. The only true divine artist is Dante, he believes; he has memorized Inferno. (Whenever anyone mentions Leonardo or Raphael, however, he makes it clear that he thinks his supposed rivals are hacks.)
Sin, a richly immersive study in genius told in Italian by the 83-year-old Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (whose equally vivid and penetrating film on a Soviet debacle, Dear Comrades!, has just been released on Hulu), situates the audience both in Michelangelo’s cruel and soiled world and in his self-lacerating, perfervid mind. Genius may not be the spouse of neuroticism, but they certainly seem to go on a lot of dates together. Muttering and fretting and dressed like a peasant, Michelangelo (fiercely portrayed by Alberto Testone) is forever tortured by visions (angels, demons), wracked by money worries, and unsettled by feuds with family and colleagues. Also, he thinks someone is going to poison him.
Commissioned by Pope Julius II to build a gigantic tomb in his honor, Michelangelo sketches out a suitably vast idea, then pours everything he has into one part of it, the statue Moses. “I have no sense of boundaries,” he observes. “My every project goes beyond my strength.” When he finally unveils the sculpture, his commissioners nod and ask: Where are the other statues? Michelangelo has promised 48 statues to decorate the tomb, and at the moment is 47 short. He couldn’t move on from Moses until it was perfect.
Sin does a great cinematic service in making a serious effort to recapture its period rather than following the usual historical-movie formula of projecting today’s obsessions, and many of its styles and habits, upon the past. The film is absolutely reeking with the grim sights and odious smells of the Renaissance — which undoubtedly felt less than glorious at the time. In the cities, people toss the contents of their chamber pots out their windows, onto the street where Il Maestro is walking below, and nobody on either end even bothers to be bothered by this habit. One aspect of historical films that especially irritates me is how clean they are, as though medieval peasants showered daily, put their clothes through the Maytag every week, and made frequent use of advanced tooth-whitening treatments. Sin is a refreshing, by which I mean putrid, rebuttal. This Michelangelo is a greasy, unwashed, unshaven cur whose eyes are lit by desperation and who apparently travels from Rome to Florence on foot. Even Pope Leo X is mangy and porcine; a glimpse of his feet is a reminder that even the most exalted human being alive in the 16th century would have enjoyed a level of health care that would horrify a poor person in Mississippi today. To top off the nasty brutishness of Renaissance life, the ruling class made things much worse with capricious gangster vendettas and prohibitions. When someone quotes from a forbidden book in Michelangelo’s presence, he is reminded that if the Inquisitors find out he’s been reading it, the penalty will be death.
Crystallizing just how much blood and toil went into creating the museum pieces we take for granted today, the heart of the movie shows Michelangelo working alongside the masons in a marble quarry, dangling over an abyss on ropes and designing systems for moving mammoth blocks of stone using nothing but muscle power and rudimentary machines such as pulleys. Michelangelo decides that to complete the tomb project, he needs a hunk of marble that miraculously didn’t break when it was chiseled off a cliff and is the size of a Chevy Suburban. As the master and his men attempt to move this piece — they call it “the monster” — down a mountain and into town, Konchalovsky creates a set piece that tingles with awe, as drenched in detail and in suspense as the bell-casting sequence that forms the climax of Andrei Rublev (1966), a comparable film by Konchalovsky’s mentor Andrei Tarkovsky.
Always and everywhere in Sin, there is a throat-gripping fear of lurking damnation. Ask for more money, and you’re guilty of the sin of greed. Take too much pride in your work, and you might be consigning yourself to hell for arrogance. The prospect of eternal torture was, to these people, as palpable as the smells from the chamber pots. And those who didn’t run afoul of God might still find themselves enemies of the family/gang, the Medicis, that rules under Pope Leo after Julius’s death. In one moment of self-doubt, Michelangelo goes into a courtyard where we catch a dazzling glimpse of his David sculpture: Nearby, there is a hanging corpse and a head mounted on a pike, both unexplained. Beauty and cruelty, inspiration and terror, magnificence and filth are commingled in virtually every scene of this pungent, passionate film. And yet this is exactly how it must have been.