THE Vatican authorities come in for high praise this week from an unlikely source and for an unusual reason. Their fan is American film star, Charlton Heston, who plays the part of Michelangelo in a new film, The Agony and the Ecstasy. to be released later this year.
Mr. Heston, with whom 1 lunched at London's Dorchester Hotel during the week, was full of praise for the way in which the Vatican authorities cooperated in the filming. Old records were thrown open to the researchers; all the information was provided for a reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo painted it.
Heston, playing opposite Rex Harrison as Pope Julius 11, explained that the story is focused on the most dramatic period of Michelangelo's life, the fouryear conflict between him and the Pope Michelangelo is the second genius Heston has portrayed— the other was Thomas Jefferson. He has also played the parts of two saints—Thomas More and John the Baptist — and a prophet, Moses.
The Rome sequences for The Agony were set primarily in the vicinity of the Vatican, which looked substantially different than it does today.
The Basilica of St. Peter's had not then been constructed and the new St. Peter's around the old St. Peter's was being built by Bramante.
Although Rome was undergoing rapid alteration under the guidance of Pope Julius. it still resembled a vast cemetery of Roman ruins over which rose the houses of the populace and the palaces of the affluent.
Much of the action in the film takes place within the Sistine
Chapel and its adjacent chamber, now known as the Papal throne room.
A duplicate of the Sistine Chapel was erected at the De Laurentiis studios for the picture. A unique feature of the set was the ceiling, with its gold stars on a blue field, the way it was before Michelangelo painted it.
Said Mr. Heston : "A problem in constructing the Sistine Chapel duplicate was posed by its size-131 ft. long. 42 ft. wide and 39 ft. high. But the Vatican people were so helpful it helped solve many of our problems.
"There were no objections to anything we wanted to do. At the Vatican we searched through countless files from the archives —some of them covered by half an inch of dust—and came up with lots of useful information about Michelangelo and the Pope "
Michelangelo, who died in his 90th year, lived through the reigns of eleven Popes. He quarrelled with every one. He was quite an incredible character," said Mr. Heston. "And how he got away with his remarks to some of the Cardinals, I'll never know."
For the three years of Michelangelo's life which the film covers, Heston wears simple brown and dark grey homespun clothing common to the artisans of that day. "It is an historical fact that during the three years we cover in the film he never changed his clothing, shoes or stockings," said Heston.
Michelangelo's dress is much less elegant, of course, than that worn by Pope Julius. In the twohour film Rex Harrison appears in 20 different costumes, including armour, for the Pope was a soldier as well as a spiritual leader.
At the end of the film, when the painting of the Sistine Chapel is completed and the Pope attends the inaugural Mass, Heston wears a new costume of black cloth.
The film, a Twentieth Century Fox production directed by Sir Carol Reed, is based on the best-selling novel by Irving Stone. It will open in London's West End in October.
I asked Heston which of his films he enjoyed most. "The next one, of course," he replied, adding: "I owe it to myself to see all my films and make critical appraisals of them. Then I know the next will be the one I shall enjoy most."
He added : "I enjoyed the Michelangelo part very much. You see, in many ways he looked like me. He had the same broken nose and high cheekbones."