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Q & A

VINCENZO LABELLA: : Making Michelangelo Human

March 17, 1991|SUSAN KING

TNT's new four-hour miniseries, "A Season of Giants," chronicles the early career of one of the world's most gifted artists, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and his rivalry with fellow Italian Renaissance giants Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael.

Filmed in Rome and Italy, "A Season of Giants" stars British actor Mark Frankel as Michelangelo, John Glover as Da Vinci and F. Murray Abraham as Pope Julius II.

Poet, short-story writer and art historian Vincenzo Labella is the miniseries' producer and co-writer. He began his film career as technical adviser on the 1962 film "Barabbas," and his 1965 documentary, "I Michelangelo, Sculptor," ran as a prologue to 1965's "The Agony and the Ecstasy," which starred Charlton Heston as Michelangelo.

Labella produced the miniseries "Moses the Lawgiver" and "Jesus of Nazareth" and wrote and produced "A.D." He also is the author of "A Season of Giants" (Little, Brown), an art book written in conjunction with the miniseries.

Labella discussed "A Season of Giants" with Susan King.

What prompted you to do the miniseries?

The very purpose of my becoming interested in this (story) was to show them (Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael) under a more human light. I think they are very human. All of these great characters lived in this season of giants--their achievements and works meant more than themselves. My intention was (for audiences) to draw an inspiration from these human beings who are absolutely similar to us with our dramas, our problems, our hopes, our fears, our weakness and our limitations.

I don't believe in the supremacy of anybody on this planet. We are all gifted with the same material. What makes us different is our engagement, our application, our concentration and our will.

I don't think a film or a miniseries should preach or teach. This is absurd. I think the purpose of a miniseries is to entertain. I believe, though, a miniseries can inspire and leave seeds for afterthought. I think if there is one thing "A Seasons of the Giants" can do, it is to help people understand we indeed can accept that man is a creature that truly can attain heights and achieve results that are possibly divine. Michelangelo was called divine by his contemporaries.

What have you thought of other films about Michelangelo, such as "The Agony and the Ecstasy"?

I think that was worthy of an appreciation. It was a wonderful re-creation and Charlton Heston gave a very good performance. The script was a very romantic interpretation of Michelangelo in a sense of looking at the man as one of great physical handsomeness. Charlton Heston is tall, muscular and handsome. They gave him a distorted nose in the film to follow the famous episode in which his friend smashed his nose with a fist blow, but he was still very attractive in the film.

In reality, Michelangelo was small, ungraceful, rather rough in appearance. We know from his biographies that he didn't change his clothes very often. He considered himself ugly. In one of his poems he wrote: "My face frightens fear."

Our approach in our miniseries is a little more realistic and a lot less romantic. We tried to represent these characters a little bit deprived of that aura of superiority. In our film he is shown as a young boy whose vocation is strongly opposed and challenged by his father, who wanted him to be a man worthy of a public office and who went as far as physically threatening Michelangelo.

He wrote that he was beaten up by his uncle and father only because he wanted to be faithful to his vocation.

What biographical sources did you use for the miniseries?

Whatever known biographies exist of him, but the major source--and even dialogue attributed to Michelangelo in the film--were his letters, of which we have the complete collection, and poems. He wrote poems of such autobiographical value that they really are the best source for anyone who really wants to know the heart of Michelangelo.

He was a character complex in many ways and yet if you look at him through his daily activities, as we can follow through his own writings and commentary, his life was a rather simple one.

The miniseries ends just prior to Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. Do you plan to do a sequel?

At this moment, I don't even think about it. I must tell you I am happy the miniseries is out. I am happy my book is selling. I wanted the book to be an invitation for people to look back. If we look back to history we can hope for the future. The best assurance that we are going to have a future is that we realize we have a past. I believe the lessons of history help us a lot.

How do you feel that the kids' heroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are named Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello?

Somebody asked me if I was disturbed. Nothing could be better to make these names familiar with children. If one child out of 100,000 is curious and asks why the characters bare these names and inquires about the people who first bore these names, that's already a gain. I am very happy.

"A Season of the Giants" airs tonight and Monday at 5 and 7 p.m. on TNT and repeats Thursday at 9 a.m. and March 24 at 11 a.m.

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