Monday, September 4, 2017

Michelangelo: Love and Death

Directed by David Bickerstaff
Featured at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September 3–30, 2017

For all its shortcomings, Michelangelo: Love and Death, directed by David Bickerstaff, treats the viewer to the chronology and principal works of Michelangelo’s long career—he died at eighty-eight. Born in Caprese near Arezzo in 1475, the Buonarroti family moved to Florence where Michelangelo was more or less raised, being farmed out to a stonemason’s family in neighboring Settignano at age six when his mother died. His first exposure to chisels and stone happened there. He returned to Florence as a youth to apprentice in Ghirandello’s studio, where Lorenzo de Medici discovered his talent and moved him into the Medici household and art academy. From that point on, Michelangelo received commissions from the Medici, two of whom became Popes. He lived during the High Renaissance when Florence was the center of art and learning and his colleagues (or competitors) included Leonardo, Rafaello, and Bottecelli. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, lauded Michelangelo as il divino, and this new documentary shows us why.
Before he turned twenty, Michelangelo was allowed to dissect corpses at the Santo Spirito Church’s hospital, endowing him with the anatomical knowledge that makes his sculpture and paintings so incredibly alive and expressive. The movie employs several devices to walk us through the artist’s successes that followed: a narrator reading selected portions from Vasari’s biography, an actor reading Michelangelo’s poems, and various art critics, historians, curators, and artists filling in details about his life and greatness. The weakest device is the white-coated, bearded sculptor in a studio filled with Michelangelo relics, hammering his chisel against a white marble block with deadpan resignation. The segment repeats periodically, unchanging in its blandness, so that it serves no purpose beyond a filler role in this carefully sequenced narrative. The uninspired sculptor bears no resemblance to Michelangelo, known to all for his passion and personality—his terribilità. These strung together, unimaginative devices that walk us rather dully, formally, through the artist’s life and work are saved by the film’s tour of his works, though the “presentation drawings” at the end induce a yawn. Close-ups of the Pietà and David, and the brilliant colors and three-dimensionality of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling are breathtaking. Also of interest is learning about Michelangelo’s prodigious output and his range of ability—sculpting, painting, architecture, drawing, and poetry—and also how his patrons often diverted him to new projects so that old ones, perhaps those closest to his personal thoughts and feelings, were left undone. 
The value of this movie is its introduction to one of civilization’s greatest geniuses, offering a loving tour of his most important works for those who might not have a chance to see them in person. One has to wonder, when the tour ends, if the colossal David can ever be surpassed.