The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovskiy’s remarkable third act “comeback” in the West began with an allegorical Life of Michelangelo, a Russian-Italian co-production titled “Il peccato” or “Sin.”
The director of the ’80s masterpiece “Runaway Train” had decades in the cinematic wilderness. But he followed 2019’s “Sin” with “Dear Comrades!” And if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s 84, we’d be heralding him as a “hot new talent” emerging from slumbering post-Soviet cinema.
“Sin” is a fascinating take on the greatest Renaissance sculptor and one of the great figures in all of art, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Famously “brilliant” and as the Pope labels him here, “a scoundrel,” but “a divine scoundrel,” he was the finest artist among Italy’s Holy Trinity of art contemporaries, Leonardo and Raphael being his rivals.
This is a markedly different look at the man, played with a twitchy verve by Alberto Testone. He’s as grimy and whiney and intense as Charlton Heston portrayed him in “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” But this Michelangelo is profane and paranoid — manic at times — a mere mortal pulled in different directions by two warring families and the Popes they put in power for their benefit — the Medicis and the Della Roveres.
We meet him trapped in Rome, where “every step I take, a priest, pilgrim or prostitute” is in his way — never satisfied, never finished with his painting of the Sistine Chapel. He ventures back to his native Florence where his mooching family spends his commissions> And then he’s off to a long sojourn in Carrara, supervising the extraction of the famed “white as sugar” marble that he would carve into statues for the tomb of Pope Julius, famously remembered as “The Fighting Pope.”
But as Julius (Massimo De Francovich) dies and the decadent Medici Pope Leo (Simone Toffanin) steps in, that commission is back-burnered.
Money and contracts change hands, no one is happy and most miserable of all is the artist himself, sure he’s being spied on, poisoned, haunted by “assassins” in every shadow.
Glibly put, this Michelangelo is every contractor you’ve ever hired to paint, roof or renovate your house — overbooking and lying about it, pushing deadlines and taking money and crying like a New Testament martyr (here in Italian with English subtitles) every time you complain.
Michelangelo frets about the Inquisition, “the Hounds of the Lord,” they call themselves, “the Bitches of the Lord” he hisses. He rages at the plagiarizing and glory-stealing Raphael (Glenn Blackhall), attacks his long-suffering, duplicitous aide Peppe (Jakob Diehl) and begs the quarrymen to be quick but careful with his Carrara marble, including the massive block everyone calls “il mostro, the monster,” which we know will be carved into his masterpiece.
A manic egomaniac, control freak and genius is overextended, and we watch him — like “Fitzcarraldo” — labor over his quixotic dream, juggling creditors and assignments every step of the way. That’s the metaphor here, the great artist laboring to put himself in a position to create a statue for the ages, squandering years of his life and his sanity in its pursuit.
“My every project goes beyond my strength,” he complains, and Testone and Konchalovskiy let us see it and feel it.
But as he fends off this creditor or that Pope or menacing Medici, he is watching — the daughter who could be his Madonna, the hands of bejeweled wealth and age, or youth or labor, his trademark as a sculptor.
It’s a gritty, lived-in film that feels like a smelly, life-is-nasty-brutish-and-short for anyone not in the ruling classes depiction of the Renaissance — beautiful and painterly even in it’s ugliness.
And Testone, wearing the weight of the world and his Herculean tasks in every haunted, furrowed-brow moment, never lets is forget the stakes, even when “Sin,” like Michelangelo, becomes more and more bogged down by the mortal sin — vanity — that “the monster” becomes.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Alberto Testone, Massimo De Francovich, Nicola Adobati, Jakob Diehl, Simone Toffanin
Credits: Directed by Andrei Konchalovskiy, script by Andrei Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 2:14