MOVIE REVIEW : The Soaring Words, Images of 'Michelagniolo'

Times Staff Writer

Robert Snyder's "Michelagniolo: Self-Portrait" (the Westside Pavilion, and being advertised as "Michelangelo: Self-Portrait"), which had a special County Museum of Art screening last December, is even more enthralling the second time around. There's such an abundance of soaring words and images in this eloquent 85-minute documentary that they could be studied and absorbed for a lifetime.

After all, Michelangelo, who signed himself Michelagniolo, a Tuscan variation of his name, is a giant of Western civilization, and Snyder and his astute cinematographer Umberto Galeassi provide us with unique, comprehensive perspectives on such works of sculpture as the Pieta, Moses, David, and the Medici tomb in Florence, such monumental frescoes as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel--photographed, incidentally, before the controversial restoration was begun--and that of the Last Judgment over the altar in the same chapel, as well as such majestic structures as the Capitoline overlooking Rome and St. Peter's itself.

Luckily for us, Michelangelo, born in 1475 to a proud, impoverished Tuscan nobleman who held an artist no better than a shoemaker, was a conscientious diarist, correspondent, poet and conversationalist whose remarks were recorded by various contemporaries. Thus, when Snyder is showing us, for example, the Pieta, carved by Michelangelo when he was only 21, Snyder's writer Michael Sonnabend has been able to supply the sculptor's own expressed regrets at having had the audacity to sign it. "Blasphemy!" wrote Michelangelo, "May the Holy Mother of God forgive me!"

As time wore on, an ironic contrast developed between Michelangelo's astonishing achievements, with their aspirations to the sublime, and the all-too-human caprice and egoism of his various papal and noble patrons. In the course of his 89 years, Michelangelo survived several major political and ecclesiastical upheavals, occasionally just barely, sustained by an unflagging passion for his art and engaged in his own spiritual struggle. To the end, he loved sculpting best, explaining that he saw his task as that of "freeing the figure encased within the marble." More than anything else, "Michelagniolo: Self-Portrait" (Time-rated Family) allows us to see Michelangelo's art as a dazzling resolution of the flesh and the spirit.

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