FILM REVIEW: Raphael- Lord of Staring

It has replaced real drama with melodramatic glances 

“I’m not a solitary spirit, unlike Michelangelo” Raphael’s voice-over tells us, whilst on screen, the two Great Masters stare silently and ominously at each other. This is a characteristic moment in Sky HD’s Raphael- The Lord of the Arts. The new film, released next month, documents the life and work of Raphael Sanzio, one of the great Renaissance artists. However, rather than opting for natural dialogue, Raphael’s life is shown with mute actors and an eerie first-person voice over.

Michelangelo's only part in the film- standing sinisterly behind a pillar
 It is strange that Raphael and Michelangelo’s relationship is almost entirely skipped over. Michelangelo once told his biographer “what Raphael knew of art he learned from me.” The elder painter was referring to the rivalry that occurred in the Vatican between the two artists. Michelangelo, who was famously secretive about his work on the Sistine Chapel, did not let anyone see it until it was completed. Yet, one day, architect Bramante and Raphael crept in to have a sneak peek at what were to become world-famous frescoes. It is said that Michelangelo never forgave them and he was forever suspicious that the event had influenced Raphael to change the paintings he was working on in the St. Agostino Church. In fact, he was probably right to be suspicious, just compare Michelangelo and Raphael’s versions of Isaiah. The film skips over this legendary conflict. I can’t help feeling it has missed an opportunity for real drama, and has replaced it with melodramatic glances.

Michelangelo's Isaiah

Raphael's Isaiah 

Unfortunately, this is not the only opportunity missed by the new film. Raphael- The Lord of the Arts promises ‘historical reconstructions which immerse the viewer in Raphael’s Renaissance world.’ It is true that the clothes and sets are beautiful to watch. Actors that look a lot like the historical figures stride through real Italian streets in picturesque costume. Yet the piece that is missing is speech. Something that would seem quite basic in creating an ‘immersive’ reconstruction is left out. Rather than dramatizing the moment Raphael fell in love with his muse and mistress, Margarita Luti, the film chooses to have the actors mutely sit next to eachother whilst the voice-over exclaims ‘I can’t bear to spend even an hour away from her!’ It seems Raphael’s entire courtship consisted of bordering-on-creepy eye contact.

Raphael seems to seduce Margarita Luti by simply staring at her 
So if it is a period drama you are looking for, you may need to search elsewhere. On the other hand, for stunning views of some of Italy’s best artistic sights, this film is almost unparalleled. In partnership with the Vatican Museums, it provides us with incredible insights into rooms that are normally packed full of visitors. One of the most enchanting moments has to be in the Raphael Rooms. As I saw in Rome only a few months ago, these rooms are always full of tourists, meaning you can never experience it fully. With steady camera-work Raphael takes us through each room, projecting the full journey the artist would have intended for his audience. The detail the camera has managed to capture is astonishing. The film explores over 70 artworks in 20 locations, some of which are not open to the public. From Rome to Florence to Milan, it provides access to some truly beautiful sites, and not only the artworks within them, but aerial views of each location are truly breath-taking.
The budget for costume and scenery was clearly high, and lacks only a good script 
Historical context and artistic analysis of each piece are also provided, with the camera zooming in on some remarkable details. Quotes from the Renaissance Art Historian, Vasari, are interlaced throughout. We are shown some of the striking details in the dramatic Transfiguration that probably inspired generations of artists such as Caravaggio. Comparisons between Marriage of the Virgin by Perugino (Raphael’s teacher) and Raphael’s take on the same scene are interesting and well-placed. Yet, here still, some direction is lacking. We are told that Raphael’s painting is far superior to Perugino’s, but not enough detail shows us why. We are also told Raphael was ground-breaking, and it is true that he was, but without comparisons with earlier Renaissance paintings, his mastery can not really be appreciated. The same problem is seen in the Transfiguration analysis where the voice-over describes it as the best painting of Christ in the whole of art history, which is quite a claim without a comparison with any other paintings of the same subject.

Access to art such as the Raphael Rooms is remarkable 
Raphael - The Lord of the Arts could have been an extraordinary insight into one of the greatest Renaissance artists - his dramatic rise to fame, his love affairs and rivalries and his sudden death. Combining thoughtful script-writing with a stunning tour around Italy’s finest artistic sites, this could have had it all. Yet it seems the directors were not sure who their audience really is. Film-goers interested in a dramatic reconstruction will be disappointed by ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’ Meanwhile, art-lovers will find the artistic analysis does not go quite deep enough. I would only recommend for those who can’t face the queues in Rome, as the filming here may provide better views of Raphael’s art than you could see in person. Although the film promises to show a life ‘full of intensity and fascination,’ the only intensity seems to be caused by a lot of glaring.

Raphael - The Lord of the Arts will be released in selected cinemas on the 23rd May

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