THE film `Michelagniolo: Self Portrait'' - a stunning 85-minute documentary produced by Oscar winner Robert Snyder - gives a very personal insight into Michelangelo's work and life. Like a shaft of sunlight in a dark room, the commentary explores the sculptor's thoughts and emotions through material gleaned by screenwriter Michael Sonnabend from the artist's personal letters, poems, and diaries, and biographies.
Now being shown at major museums and some art theaters - and also released on home video and laser disc - the film is Snyder's second on Michelangelo,
As it opens, the camera seems to be seeing through the eyes of the 89-year-old sculptor as he carves his last work, the Rondanini Pieta. As narrator, Mr. Snyder reads from Michelangelo's own writing: ``How different from my first Pieta, in St. Peter's. But that was a lifetime ago, when I was 21. Beauty was my idol then; now faith alone must guide me.''
The Snyder-Sonnabend film had almost as unusual a passage from inception to completion as the life it describes. Snyder's first documentary on the great Italian sculptor was ``The Titan: Story of Michelangelo,'' winner of an Academy Award in 1951.
Why make a second film? ``Over a quarter of a century of scholarship and research have occurred,'' he told me in an interview. ``Since '51, there have been discoveries of original works - the wall drawings in the Sotteraneo, the artist's early wooden Crucifix, and his late Pieta Rondanini. Such factors strongly urged a desire to reevaluate his work in a second film.''
The art world must agree: Museums have eagerly sought out the film. Audiences have expressed enough interest to cause Snyder to produced a photo book to illustrate the art and the making of the documentary.
Once the film was completed, ``things began to happen,'' Snyder says. ``In addition to screenings across the US, it soon begins a tour of Europe. In honor of the emerging democracy in Poland, national Polish TV has scheduled ``Michelagniolo, Self Portrait'' as a Christmas special, with an actor narrating it in Polish.
Snyder has also had several American underwriters wanting to expand the tour and make it available to schools as well as museums.
The film's success so far brings a warm smile to Snyder's face. ``It wasn't always this way,'' he says. ``For 10 years I was a man with a dream, and not too many people were interested in sharing it. `You've already won one Oscar for ``Michelangelo,''' I was told. `Why not leave him and launch another subject?'
``I listened, and I did produce several other features. But I always had this second film on Michelangelo in the back of my mind.''
When screenwriter Sonnabend and cinematographer Umberto Galeassi came on board, Snyder got to work in earnest. He had long been a frequent researcher at the Vatican, yet obtaining permission to film Michelangelo's work was not easy.
And, working with Galeassi and crew, they often photographed in cramped space. ``The underground passage between the Medici Chapel and the Medici Palace was vital to the documentary,'' Snyder recalls. ``There was little room for camera and lights, much less crew. We literally squeezed into a narrow corridor to be at the wall where Michelangelo sketched in hiding during the siege of Florence in 1530.''
The film also deals with Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel, starting with the artist's middle years, when he painted the ceiling, a legendary feat, and the object of a just-completed major restoration. Later, Snyder's documentary covers the period in Michelangelo's mature years when he was asked to do the monumental altar fresco called ``The Last Judgment.''
``Obtaining permission to film the Pieta in St. Peter's was extremely difficult,'' he continues. ``Since 1972, when a deranged visitor smashed the face of the Virgin, the statue has been protected with a bullet-proof partition.
``The Vatican informed me that no still or motion-picture photographer had been permitted to go behind that barrier. I explained it would be impossible to photograph it through the partition as thoroughly and intimately as was necessary. It took one full year of negotiation with the officials before a special dispensation was granted us. It was the first - and probably the last - time such permission will be given.''
All the labor was more than worth it, as the critics acclaimed ``Michelagniolo: Self Portrait'' as a film that offers viewers a window into the heart soul of the artist.
Snyder was touched when he was told about a group of students who saw the film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: One teenager said, ``I've just met Michelangelo, and I understand him.''
Snyder says, ``Now my dream is fulfilled.''