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DVD Review: Michelangelo: Self Portrait

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Oscar winning director Robert Snyder revisits the life and work of Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti in his newly released DVD, Michelangelo: Self Portrait. In 1950 his black and white film, The Titan: Story of Michelangelo won the Academy Award for best documentary. The film, which is included as a bonus feature on the current DVD, uses Nazi footage discovered by Snyder in Europe while working with the OSS combined with newly shot material. It is narrated by Frederic March in his best scenery-chewing manner and seems as much interested in melodrama as it is in documentation. Nonetheless, it provides a fascinating look into the life and work of the artist, and may well be worth the price of the DVD all on its own.

But then, Snyder's new effort has some advantages of its own. There's color for a start, new closer access to work like the "Pieta," and a script by Michael Sonnabend which uses material from Michelangelo's diaries and poems, his contemporary biographers, Vasari and Condivi, and his favorite poet Dante's Divine Comedy. All this is complemented by a score of period music by Monteverdi and Frescobaldi.

Beginning at the end of the artist's life, the film goes back to his birth in March of 1475. The narrator who is not identified on the DVD, but who seems to have been Snyder himself, speaking in the voice of Michelangelo, talks about his father's unhappiness with his desire for a career as an artist, and describes how he was taken under the wing of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici. His early work is illustrated and the conflict between Christian and Pagan elements is emphasized by the comparison between his "Madonna of the Stairs" and his "Battle of the Centaurs." This conflict between the spiritual and the earthly is something that will haunt him throughout his life.

The film follows his career chronologically: taking time to provide extensive views of all of his major work, from the great sculpture like the statues of "David" and that of "Moses," modeled on Pope Julius II, to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and "The Last Judgment." It details the problems he had with some of his papal commissions, the fears raised by the denunciations of the conservative cleric, Savonarola, and the role he played in the short-lived Florentine republic. It looks at the human element—the broken nose he got from a fellow apprentice less than enchanted with his critical eye; and it looks at the monumental vision—the plans for the Dome of St. Peters. It points to all the angst-ridden self-portraiture running through his work, self-portraiture which at least one critic sees as the artist's guilt trip. In the end he hopes that somehow the spirituality of his work will make up for what he calls his "worship of art" and his pursuit of fame.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the aesthetic commentary, both on the interpretation of individual works and on the nature of art, especially sculpture. The Sistine ceiling for example is said to be a representation of a world above our world. Some of the unfinished statues intended for Julius' tomb are "caught in the act of freeing themselves." This last is in keeping with the artist's general sculptural aesthetic. The stones, he tells us, hold his images in them waiting to be released. The sculptor cuts away layers until the figure emerges, "the figure that lives within it." It would seem that rather than creating something, the sculptor is really concerned with revealing something that is already there. There is something Platonic about this kind of thinking. In the end, it is man's work—his art—that takes him step by step closer to God.

Aside from The Titan, the DVD also includes an interview with Snyder, a filmography, and some selections from other films on creative artists like Willem De Kooning, Henry Miller, Pablo Casals, and Anais Nin. The Titan runs about an hour and the Self Portrait about 85 minutes.

Michelangelo: Self Portrait is an illuminating and exciting guide to one of the great geniuses of western civilization. It is filled with detailed footage of his work as the camera pans up and down the expanse of his statues and frescoes, stopping at an arm here, a face there to illustrate the mastery of the artist. The scene as the camera dollies out from a close-up of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel to a full on view of the whole in all its glory is perhaps as close as you could come to the thrill of actually seeing it in person.

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