Sin: Rocky Road, by David Bax
In ways both good and bad, Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Sin isn’t strictly a biopic of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo (played here by Alberto Testone). Like most good biographical films, it doesn’t try to cram too much of the man’s life into one sitting. Instead, it focuses on the years immediately following the painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, a period of time that was–at least by Michelangelo’s standards–frustratingly unproductive. That wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. As Sin‘s lengthy text preamble explains (or overexplains; it pretty much sums up the entire biographical thrust of the movie), the painter and sculptor was repeatedly stymied by combatting loyalties, first to the family of the late Pope Julius II (Massimo De Francovich), whose tomb he had been commissioned to ornament with statues, and second to the Medicis, the powerful family of the new Pope Leo X (Simone Toffanin).
While we get the occasional glimpse of Michelangelo’s immense talents–his stunning sculpture of Moses gets star treatment–Sin spends the majority of its running time concerned with the more logistical elements of its subject’s vocation. This includes begging for funding, tolerating the peccadillos of his apprentices and, most significantly, procuring marble. Konchalovskiy and co-screenwriter Elena Kiseleva focus a good deal of their attention on the difficulties Michelangelo undergoes in attempting to first purchase a massive slab of stone and then get it down a mountainside in one piece.
As he did with Dear Comrades (recently released in the United States though Sin was actually produced first), Konchalovskiy shoots in the classical, squarish 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This allows for an emphasis on height, all the better to frame the mountain roads winding up toward the sky, the massive portion of marble that dwarfs Michelanglo and the upright statues he very occasionally manages to actually produce. While Konchalovskiy sprinkled comedy into his historical interpretations in Dear Comrade, here he opts for the odd (but welcome) apportionment of horror. Michelangelo’s not-entirely-unfounded paranoia about his benefactors, assistants and rivals manifests itself in Jacob’s Ladder-style hallucinations of demonic tentacles and possibly possessed wild dogs.
Sin also has in common with Dear Comrades a disdain for the hypocrisy of institutions, seeing them as made up of people who will always choose their own self-interest over the duties to which they are ostensibly sworn. Neither of the two popes we meet even pretends to be anything more than a powermonger, the head of a business concern at best and an organized crime syndicate at worst (Rome and the Vatican are dismissed as being comprised entirely of “priests, pilgrims and prostitutes”). Tugged in opposite directions by two such families and blatantly pitted against contemporaries like Raphael (Glen Blackhall), Michelangelo is left with fealty only to himself.
That’s not to be interpreted, though, as the film saying its protagonist is the lone sane, reliable man in a sea of scoundrels. Testone plays him, quite well, as a seething cyclone of insecurities, always threatening to suck in or lash out at anyone who gets too close. He does at least possess a mote of self-awareness and compassion, though; after firing an assistant in a rage for the transgression of dining with another sculptor’s apprentices, Michelangelo then runs after the weeping man in the street, gently leading him back to the workshop with an apology and a promise to treat him to a nice meal of rabbit.
So where is the sin of the title? It’s all around, actually, or–more accurately–its consequences are. I quickly lost count of how many times one character insists that another will burn in Hell. Michelangelo himself is specifically accused of two mortal sins, greed and pride. It’s the latter charge that sticks. As a portrait of an artist who traffics in Christian iconography but risks idolizing only himself, Sin recalls Andrei Rublev (the gigantic slab of marble here is as much a cinematic representation of hubris as that film’s cathedral bell). Alas, Konchalovskiy lacks Tarkovsky’s curiosity and willingness to embrace ambiguity. But Sin is still too grand to be ignored.