Sin (Il Peccato) – Holy Unhappiness

Sin is a portrait of a man in torment, not only because he fears god but because the fear makes him feel ungrateful. He believes so strongly that god is out to get him that he places himself at an equal status with god (and he knows it’s il peccato). But he’s at war with how the universe perceives him, and the only prisoner he has the power to take is himself. Self-loathing is his only appraisal. Had he found healthier ways into his heart, or around his inhibitions, he might have been a more upstanding Roman citizen centuries ago. But it may have been his sin, or his perception that he had sinned, that made him a sculptor, which is why a film that is not about sculpting seems to decode some of history’s most magnificent art at the spiritual level. Holy rivalry made him miserable, and great.

Michelangelo Buonarroti throughout his irreverently long life, living to the age of 88 in sheer defiance of the elements of his age, was known as il divino, “the divine one.” Viewers of his art lost the ability to feel pride; potential critics melted into a sense of longing so strong that it led naturally to feelings of unworthiness. They believed that the only logical explanation for the existence of his statues was that the artist was on a first-name basis with God. The art was better proof of divine intervention than anything they had seen on the 16th-century streets, or in the obtuse words of the religious leader of the moment. Today, we're drowned in iconography, in undrained swamps of licensed art, a constant world of constant creations carved from programmed lasers and posted on nonstop forums of information. Yet, you can still look at la pieta and feel like it's the first work of art you've ever seen. Imagine if it really was, or if someone told you that it was made by someone who was 23 years old. What else had you ever seen in your frantically short, grueling life that looked more like God than that? The artist had to be either devil or divine and devils don’t make statues of Jesus’s mom.

The sliver of Michelangelo on display in Sin, brought to the life of a cinematic torture-poem by a technician-dreamer who goes back to the USSR named Andrey Konchalovsky, is full of conflict. It utterly lacks the resolution of finished art, just as anything il divino finishes (or is willing to admit is finished) brings him pain in proportion to its perfection. It can never be good enough to not have been purer, if not of form than at least of intent. Even if it impressed every soul in the world, this would only lead to the sin of pride, opening the opportunity to make it even more finished to make up the spiritual difference. The film is like that – it dodges completion but for its own sake.

Alberto Testone brings the man limping from the canvases of Renaissance portraits, wandering the streets squinting in his own holy light and human stench, which is nearly as visible. He is sometimes called “scoundrel” and others “master” and not always by different people. He wears the rags of an aching age and the eyes of one of its prisoners. The film invites you to partake of his struggle, but it doesn’t make an enormous, melancholic epic of it. It is not Les Coupable to Hugo’s Les Misérables. It’s not even the man’s “story.” It’s just some of his experiences, drawn up with a feeling of longing for the rest of them. The plot that contains them is pedestrian, as lowly as the art is erudite. It doesn’t sweep you off your feet in looming significance like a previous Buonarroti biopic, The Agony and the Ecstasy, in which everyone’s favorite Mediterranean (Charlton Heston) wallowed in feely splendor. The version of the artist in Sin works tirelessly from both sides of two families warring for control of the church (Della Rovere and Medici), dedicating years to doing as much work as possible without either of them finding out who the work is for. He carries Dante’s Divine Comedy with him everywhere, to remind him that every project he undertakes “goes beyond my strength,” as he puts it, though you can never be sure if he feels limited or just wishes he did. The petty context of his history-defining art, tugged by money issues and family squabbles at each payoff and every overfunded ambition, may be to blame for his neurotic self-appraisals. They result naturally from the pressures of divinity.

The beauty of Rome, Carrera, Florence surrounds the man, almost insultingly scruffy-looking against the planar pastels of the mountains and the holy vestiges of sky. The architecture forms shafts of light that exhume him; his wrinkled face seems like a taunt to those who see it, looking for a prophet in a bum. Yet, Testone gets the smile just right – he has the teeth of a jester, a clown genius, a workman tortured with a master’s skill. He’s able to throw it all back at the world, all the misfortunes caused by living in it, and absolve the belief in him with one naïve glance, just enough aware of his status to be pained by it. In one scene, he screams at his family for the luxury his labor affords them (“You eat meat every day!”). It’s a rare moment of normalcy in a life broken by vivid ambitions and imagined pleasures and the reality of his unrequited love of the universe, which he can only express in stone. His artistic competitor, the more socially adept Raphael (Glen Blackhall), blatantly steals his style and taunts him for it (he sneaks a peak at Sistine and copies it before the real one is finished). But he can't beat him down enough to stop revering him, a theme in all of Michelangelo's male relationships.

His dealings with women meanwhile are all forms of spiritual insight. The old wives of his benefactors (one strategically placed Anita Pititto, who has the profile of one of the older Sibyls in the Sistine frescoes) look at him with the energy of kissing his feet. But then a village maiden (a supermodel named Alexandra Deynega undercover as a plush but enticing peasant), whose rosy figure he spies sleeping in the quarry practically asking to be sculpted, never glances at him. She seems to have her own pre-existing contract with the divine, without the need for an artistic witness. He bounces off these encounters like a wanderer in divine parables (even meeting the dead Dante Alighieri, in whose bed he sleeps), each a circle of his belief in life, each bringing out a personality that will become part of the consciousness of his sculpture. With women, he seems to miss the difference between beautiful and godly, as people do when they view his art; maybe it’s key to the spiritual endurance of his work. With men, he’s all business and suspicion, wrestling for scraps, spewing life-threatening betrayals, suspecting the worst from all and getting it, eventually, even they can't help but revere him along the way. But with women, he’s a believer.

Most of the discourse in the film takes the form of backhandedly holy demands, some by Medici rulers fattened on faith, blood pooling in their obese toes (thrones can cut off circulation), others by Della Rovere finger-men, such as a jumped-up financier played by Antonio Gargiulo, whose trying task is to muscle a man into working without being able to break any fingers for fear of their holy value. He resorts to paying him more gold, just with the tone of a threat. Michelangelo seems unshaken by these exchanges so long as he can survive them. What people call “scoundrel” in him is really a kind of hyper-self-preservation that only artists know, where anything can be sacrificed for an unimpeded work. If he can get out of a snare, he imagines, even temporarily, he can resume his fixation until he has to wriggle out again.

Konchalovsky shoots the film in 4:3 with the tone of being released rather than boxed in. Height for this film is an expression of holy construction – he’s able to capture a whole mountain, the whole expanse of a ceiling, the entire figure of a man, the full height of a statue. The frames have an artist’s wide eyes, without the peripherals of a more "cinematic" view. It's willing to box itself into Michelangelo's gaze and consider its world as he seemed to, one isolated frame at a time. The people in the streets seem wrenched from paintings and notations; wanderers in local taverns just need to stop moving for a second to recall a master’s work here, or there, forgotten still life paintings in motion. For Konchalovsky, the film accumulates details for a view of the period but also of his art, which has never ceased being a labor of recreation. He has never riffed on the universe as Michelangelo sculpted folds of flesh from stone, but he has worked at it, from his profuse search for meaning in the screenplays for Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, all the way to the openly laborious frames of subjection in Sin. Mountains loom over his work, as they enclose his subjects. He finds the natural in them, even the sublime, but not without chipping at them first.

Why is the film called “Sin?” It’s a valid question. Perhaps Michelangelo never escaped the impression that his art was sinful, as all iconography is inherently a work of ego (even that which a filmmaker requires to take an actor and call him Michelangelo). He could not sculpt divinity without feeling, in some way, that he was like the divine. But maybe the title refers to another kind of sin. It may be the sin of which madness is an explanation but not a valid excuse, the sin of a paradox of all the great creators, that they are the source of the most profound happiness for others yet struggle to include themselves in it. It could be the sin of struggle. You may not know that Michelangelo placed his self-portrait into the fresco, “The Last Judgement,” in the Sistine Chapel, but not as a god, or angel, or reveler – he is the flayed, disemboweled skin of St. Bartholomew, hanging limply in the center. It was either how he saw himself or how he thought god saw him. Maybe his sin was that he couldn’t separate the two.

Michelangelo’s desires are dwarfed by the marble slab deemed “il monstro,” which turns him into a reverse Sisyphus who can push his burden all the way down the mountain but is cursed to lose it to the petty realities of his personality and the conditions in which he lives. This may be the film’s interpretation of the story of the stone that became David, which was oversized and discarded in a yard due to its structural flaws before Michelangelo worked on it in secret and eventually had it moved. It’s a stretch of the truth of that stone. But it’s an impression of perhaps a greater truth of his life, which was the beauty he found in discarded things, being one himself. Creating divine images from them didn’t just remind people of god – it reminded them of the version of themselves that is in god. Michelangelo was tormented by that thought, but someone else must have found joy in it. They may have been sustained by such a joy.

Mary is widened in la pieta to giant proportions to hold the dead body of her son Jesus across her lap. Her huge hands hold up the flesh under his arms; he lays limp on an expanse of cloth, as big and protective as a mother’s body seems when a baby is born. Her enormous warmth is a plea, maybe not a conscious one. But it’s an artist laying limp across his art, hoping to be mothered by it. Look at Mary’s face – it has no caricature in it, no trace of any of the eccentricities of stylized sculpted icons typical of the time. It is a real woman’s face. The women in Sin are all forms of iconic motherhood – withered wives in stoic prisons, street dwellers, pure yet defiled, the plump and hopeful daughters of opportunistic fathers, destined to become shriveled maids despite beginning life as restrained supermodels. For an artist, their hips are wide enough to move nations (or hold god in their lap). Michelangelo sustains himself with them, but he may not be looking for love. He may just be looking for someone to repent to.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Andrey Konchalovsky Studios

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