On DVD: Michelangelo: Self-Portrait

Like the best documentaries, Robert Snyder's Michelangelo: Self-Portrait is simultaneously entertaining, enriching, and inspiring. Simple in concept, but complex in its editorial approach, Snyder's film is narrated through the artist's own words, taken from diaries, letters, and early biographers, and accompanied by images of his work. The result is a stirring and unique film biography, one that is devoid of narrative cheats and artifice.

We begin with Michelangelo's voice in a letter to the great biographer Giorgio Vasari; the artist complains of his various ailments and describes a new pietà he has begun (the Rondanini Pietà). From here, the narration consists of more or less chronological biographical information in "flashback" form, as Michelangelo regales us with tales from his early life, his first works, and his imbroglios with authority - particularly the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo: Self-Portrait is grounded in the artist's own time and own words; we see him as an artist and a man, assessing his own work with honest criticism and equally fair egotism. He is not a monolithic cultural figure here - he's a man driven to make art, in his own way, and often at great personal risk. Immune to criticism now, that was hardly the case during his lifetime.

The most compelling aspect of this documentary is not the biographical detail, per se, nor the beautifully photographed works of art on display here; the most revealing content comes from Michelangelo's discussion of the sense of investment he had in his art - the passion he felt, as well as the highly personal details present in almost every work he made. In a post-Impressionist world, it's too easy for modern audiences to shrug off Renaissance artists as hired guns, working for the authority figures of the era, whether they were Church officials or the nobility. We are quick to allow for supreme technical proficiency, but just as quick to ignore the soul of their work. The more overtly expressive art of the last century is easier to attribute (or impose) emotional significance. Here, Snyder gets at Michelangelo's own assessment of his work, as well as the intense connection he felt to it. In particular, the physicality of sculpture seems to have engendered a stronger bond between artist and material than with frescos and other painting. Michelangelo speaks of growing up around quarries and the intimacy with which he understood the manipulation of stone. Just as the artist's mind is often ignored, the craft of art-making is undervalued today; we tend to place a higher value on "expression," even though it's wholly subjective and impossible to measure.

This is a carefully-constructed film, and an enormous amount of time was spent shaping the script and selecting the imagery. Snyder's camera is patient and loving when photographing the Michelangelo's work, and his approach to editing is fluid and informative, always cutting or dissolving to images that dovetail appropriately with the narration. The narrator, interestingly, is not credited; I would assume it's Snyder himself. Music is almost contemporaneous (Monteverdi and Frescobaldi), and quotations from Dante are judiciously included.

Snyder's film is a great work of art itself: a documentary that reveals a man whose life and mind have been clouded by the vast scope of his artistic achievement. But ultimately, he was someone with his own share of triumphs and tragedies, very much a human being, and Snyder finds a way to access Michelangelo's humanity from across the centuries, in spite of his legendary status. 

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