Ranking: #102/111

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky (Russia)   

Genre: Historical Biographical Period Drama

Konchalovsky creates a stunning naturalistic vision of the world of Renaissance Italy. This colourful, dirty and chaotic world, brought to life through consistently meticulous mise-en-scène and intimate camera work, provides a plausible context for the director’s personalised narrative about the financial struggles of Michelangelo in the latter part of his career, amid great personal and political turbulence. The director has said his work has been strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism and you can see this in the use of several non-professional or unknown actors, in the shots of messy streets and in the respectful focus on the dignity of the workers, for example, in the marble quarries where Michelangelo goes to find colossal slabs for his sculptures.

The director explained in an interview that he made the conscious decision not to focus on depicting the Renaissance genius at work, either in painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel or in producing several of the greatest sculptures of all time. In his opinion, this would have been boring footage. What was more interesting was the recreation of the conditions in which Michelangelo lived and worked. The director focuses, rather, on the humanity of the artist wrestling with personal and political challenges. These include his financial woes, conflicts with his rivals and enemies and sourcing the best marble blocks in Italy for his monumental sculptures. They also include his torn loyalties between the contending power centres of the Della Rovere nobility and the Medici family. In the end, Michelangelo is almost crushed by the pressures he has to live under.

Interestingly, after Konchalovsky had finished writing the script of Sin, he realised the story was like a sequel to Tarkovsky’s 1966 historical biographical drama Andrei Rublev, about the 15th century Russian icon painter. Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky co-wrote the screenplay for Andrei Rublev. Both films explore a legendary artist and both films focus on the social, moral and political conditions in which the artists lived and worked, not on the acts of creation themselves.

In the main role, Alberto Testone creates a portrait of the great man as a sensitive Bohemian artist who doesn’t fit into society’s powerful hierarchies. The great artist is presented as a complex, almost paradoxical, character in whom greatness and idealism are bound up with several, less appealing, qualities like disloyalty, underhand financial dealings and rudeness to others. Adopting an appropriate humanist approach to this characterisation at the heart of the film, Konchalovsky shows him to be increasingly overwhelmed by competing demands and pressures, usually to do with money or relationships to powerful patrons who commission his works. A daydreamer by nature, he often appears distracted, sometimes focusing on someone’s hands, to the exclusion of everything else going on around him, so that he can imprint in his mind the shape, texture and form of the hands for a possible future sculpture. The inner torment Michelangelo experiences is powerfully portrayed by Testone, revealing the artist’s fragility and humanity, despite being hailed as “divino”, with “god-like” gifts, by some of his contemporaries, including the Pope. Konchalovsky avoids all idealisation. He has said he wanted to convey the “troubles, dreams and pains” Michelangelo would have experienced.

The director, like Kurosawa and Bergman, writes his own screenplays. That’s because he wants to do all the research an author would do when writing a book on his subject-matter.

The film captures the spirit of the times through consistent cinematic realism, stripped of all sentimentality and mythology. In the streets of Rome or Florence human waste is thrown out of windows, to be dodged by those who happen to be walking past. At the same time, in addition to this “street level” view of the cities in which Michelangelo lived and worked, there’s some imagery of the countryside and of the marble quarries in Carrara and Pietrasanta which are sublime.

Michelangelo is shown as having a hands-on approach to the whole process of creation, including deciding on-site which marble to use (usually the marble with the whitest hue), what size the block should be, and helping to plan the transport of the massive stone blocks.

The theme of the movie is that to attain to a pure and true form of art in a corrupt, mediocre world is a messy, supremely challenging, and sometimes deeply flawed, process. The need to compromise when powerful forces impinge on a person, creating unbearable levels of pressure, is highlighted a few times in the movie, hence its title Sin.

The images of the massive marble block nicknamed “the monster”, and the complicated mechanical effort required to transport it down from the quarry, symbolise the challenge of being true to art and to the power of one’s imagination. These shots, especially those which include the slender, sinewy figure of the Renaissance artist, dwarfed by the marble, take the viewer’s breath away. The cinematography in the mountains and quarries elevates the spirit with its beauty.

Konchalovsky has said in a documentary film about the making of Sin, that cinematography should impact the emotions of viewers in such a way that the image can stay strong in the memory. The director used six cameras at different angles during filming and the audience gets a panoramic and in-depth sense of all the exterior scenes. To match the varying perspectives provided by images from six different cameras, the sound crew were tasked to provide multiple microphones to pick up sounds from different angles, too. There is good blending between rich imagery and resonant use of sounds.

Sin is a pictorial and thematic masterpiece, a highly original biographical treatment of an artist with a fragile character, whose supreme talent came with its own heavy burdens.