To say “Sin” is about Michelangelo is much too reductive. Rather than offering up a definitive portrait of the Italian artist, Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky has crafted instead a poetic meditation around the many contradictions that surround the “David” and “Pietà” sculpture artist: He’s divine. He’s a scoundrel. He’s a genius. He’s crazy. He’s all those things and yet defined by none of them. It’s telling that “Sin” doesn’t actually spend much time with Michelangelo creating, less interested as it is in what makes a great artist than in the material conditions that shape and inspire one.
The Italian-language art film, which releases in virtual cinemas Feb. 19, opens with a written précis about the political rivalry between the Della Rovere nobility (in power at the time, in the shape of Pope Julius II) and the Medici family (soon to take over when Leo X ascends to the papacy), locating Michelangelo (an aptly disheveled Alberto Testone) squarely within the two. Much too broke to turn away handsome commissions (such as Pope Julius II’s tomb) and much too vain to refuse coveted endeavors (the façade of the San Lorenzo Basilica), Michelangelo spends much of “Sin” trapped in a kind of tragicomedy of errors plot where he’s constantly keeping his dueling patrons from figuring out he’s working both sides. Konchalovsky, here sharing screenwriting duties again with Elena Kiseleva (“Paradise” and “The Postman’s White Nights”), pares down Michelangelo’s story in the early 16th century to a kind of epic parable about artistic hubris.
Neither glowing hagiography nor gritty apologia, “Sin” wallows instead in Michelangelo’s melancholy, his vanity and later his paranoia. Testone plays him like a neurotic holy fool who wishes his earthly constraints — issues of money and deadlines, of resources and allegiances, of jealousies and feuds — would stop getting in the way of his art. “My every project goes beyond my strength,” he bemoans. He’s driven to fits of rage and equally calm moments of self-reflection, a man always atoning for his own fallibility as he slowly loses his grasp on reality and finds himself absorbed by the promise and premise of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
By the time that famed poet appears in a vision toward the end of the film, it’s clear “Sin” is borrowing more from that text than meets the eye. Michelangelo’s poetic divagations (“You’re poisonous and your poison is sublime,” he mutters to himself about the city of Florence; “I wanted to find God, but I only found Man,” he laments about his own work), in fact, are always welcome digressions from the intricate political machinations between the Della Rovere and the Medici or the petty rivalries between Michelangelo and his contemporaries, the intertwined plots that risk bogging down the bulk of “Sin.”
There’s a painterly sensibility to Konchalovsky’s vision throughout. Along with his frequent DP, Aleksander Simonov, the filmmaker makes the Carrara quarry a vision of the sublime. You understand why Michelangelo would become so transfixed by a mammoth of a monolith (aka “The Monster”) there and choose to spend whatever money necessary to safely transport it down below — in one piece. The Quixotic endeavor is but another example of Michelangelo’s refusal to let physical (or geological) challenges compromise his artistic ambition. And, as with everything else, it comes at much too high a price.
Which is not to say “Sin” romanticizes its subject or its setting. If those vast natural landscapes look sublime, it is only because they’re juxtaposed with the muck-filled interiors that dominate much of Michelangelo’s life. This is no sanitized version of the Renaissance. Whether during measly feasts with friends in cramped dimly lit spaces or at meetings in overly adorned rooms during which noblemen attend to their sickly compositions, “Sin” works hard to make you smell the stench of its surroundings — making Michelangelo and his artistry feel all the more like a balm.