Review: Andrei Konchalovsky applies his cinematic grit to Michelangelo in the biopic ‘Sin’
Neither agonizing nor ecstatic, but solidly cinematic, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Michelangelo biopic “Sin” sees the veteran Russian filmmaker tackling the mystery of genius with what might be described as sumptuous grit. It’s a Renaissance-era recreation that looks both lavish and hard, bracketed in a sense by the infinite gaze from the Italian alps at one extreme and at the other, the everyday dodge in Florentine or Roman streets of emptied waste buckets; in between, amidst popes and peasants, one man made timeless art. But while the visceral pull of “Sin” commands the attention, it never exactly fuses its various strands of conflict into a cohesive vision of the irascible artist’s unique plight.
Props, first, however, to the vibrancy of Konchalovsky’s output as a director who, nearing his 84th birthday, shows no signs of braking an unpeggable career, one that has over the years seen adaptations of great Russian artists (Chekhov, Tchaikovsky) and adaptations to the trappings of Hollywood (remember “Tango and Cash”?). Lately, he’s landed in a kind of European arthouse mode — marked by evocative use of the box-like academy ratio framing — that’s clearly revitalized him. Because while “Sin,” cowritten with frequent collaborator Elena Kiseleva, was premiering at the Venice International Film Festival in 2019, Konchalovsky was simultaneously finishing his powerful Soviet historical drama “Dear Comrades”, which has been released to the kinds of reviews and international feature Oscar shortlist buzz that could see it deemed his crowning achievement.
Where “Dear Comrades” and its depiction of a tragic event from the director’s lifetime pulsates with the sting of his own country’s past, the Russian-Italian coproduction “Sin” and its Great Artist portraiture belongs to a metaphor-for-directing genre not uncommon to confident filmmakers with a wide range of experience trying to get movies made. Here, it’s represented by the massive block of Carrara marble — not so affectionately deemed the “monster” by Michelangelo (Alberto Testone) and the quarry workers tasked with getting it down the mountain — that will hopefully be transformed into something beautiful, wondrous and eternal (whether it satisfies his wealthy backers or not).
The film, which will represent Russia in the Oscar race for international feature, is a clear-eyed portrait of events long shrouded in confusion and denial.
As “Sin” opens — with a not unamusing introduction to the disheveled, dyspeptic sculptor raving to himself on the road to Florence while a farmer nearby stops to stare — Michelangelo is broke and broken by years spent painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, while a 42-statue project for the tomb of Pope Julius II (Massimo De Francovich) has barely begun. When Julius dies and the Medici family’s own Leo X (Simone Toffanin) assumes the papacy, the artist — sometimes consumed with visions — finds himself straddling the demands of a neglected commission while currying favor with the newest power players. Not to mention having to navigate jealous peers, bothersome family members, threatening patrons and his own relentlessly questioning soul.
Since one of Konchalovsky’s first significant credits is cowriting Andrei Tarkovsky’s early masterpiece, the painter biography “Andrei Rublev,” it’s tempting to view “Sin” and its mix of the earthy (Testone’s dusty, grimy appearance) and the spiritual (Michelangelo’s desire to manifest his idol Dante) as his own directorial stamp on the complicated life of an iconic artist. That connection is readily apparent in the most riveting sequence of “Sin”: the nuts-and-bolts toil required to transport Michelangelo’s precious marble “monster,” which could be a shout-out to the sweat, danger and glory of the bell-casting scenes in “Rublev.”
Outside that vivid rendering of a treacherous feat, however, “Sin” is only haphazardly interesting as a burrowing into the mind of a tormented maestro. The location hopping and timeline compression can be confusing, and Testone’s neorealist-adjacent portrayal of an egotistical, pulled-in-many-directions misanthrope doesn’t always amount to a window into his subject’s relationship to his divine talent.
The general authenticity of the other performers, however — in manner and appearance — is a decided asset, as is the totality of the crisply evocative compositions Konchalovsky and cinematographer Aleksander Simonov serve up across agelessly picturesque Italy. “Sin” may ultimately resemble something shapeless and wanting, but even an unformed block of marble boasts an impressive textural beauty.
In Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 19, Laemmle Virtual Cinema
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