Film biographies are difficult. Filmmakers who tackle them come up with all kinds of devices to dramatize the slow, everyday existence that people have, with the occasional highlight of success or grand failure that comes from an inwardly focused genius. Writer-director Mick Davis' hook here is the romance and atmosphere of French painting in the early 20th century and an emphasis on the romantic and uncontrollable emotions of the central figure. A third of it is an episodically disordered string of scenes, giving us illuminating glimpses of Modigliani's art, a suggestion of his private life, his intense (and probably overstated) rivalry with Pablo Picasso, and his general standing among the art dealers and galleries of the time. The remaining two thirds is melodrama.
As far as art is concerned, Amedeo Modigliani's (Andy Garcia) unique way of exaggerating the human figure, while today recognized as a singular vision worthy of major honor, prestigious exhibition and sums of money, was not recognized for its genius in the time of its creation. Picasso had no trouble selling his work for increasingly great fees and lived accordingly. Modigliani suffered the extremes of poverty.
At this time (1919) Paris is preparing for the "Grand Prix de Peinture," the yearly art competition at the famed Salon des Artistes. The prize is great enough to rescue an artist from obscurity and to guarantee recognition, yet Modigliani, so long as the Spaniard Picasso stays out, considers it equally beneath him. While Jean Cocteau, Soutine, Maurice Utrillo, Diego Rivera and others see no problem in competing, the bull-headed Italian refuses to admit the necessity.
The parallel thread of his story is his tragic personal life. He discovers and falls in love with Jeanne Hebuterne, (Elsa Zylberstein) a great beauty that inspired an outpouring of portraiture and nude figures but who also was a Catholic, while Modigliani was Jewish. This was no factor for the lovers, but the extreme bigotry of her father Achilles (Jim Carter) led to the cruel removal of their child to a Catholic institution.
In a scene when Jeanne confronts her father, she says in accusatory tones, "don't forget what you did." Her reference remaining unexplained, I interpreted to mean that the guy's high morals didn't exclude him from molesting his daughter some time in the past. But, it remains merely suggested.
In this somewhat extravagant version of the artist, Garcia's great looks and natural magnetism wars with a character who suffered from immaturity and arrogance -- on the one hand a spoiled, obstinate child; on the other, a passionate creator. This lends flare to the dynamics of rivalry among artists, the hatred so strong between them that Picasso went out to dinner with a gun on his belt. That these characters were undoubtedly emotional and outspoken, one wonders if there's much of a basis in reality for this portrait.
Taking liberties with history for the sake of drama is, of course, nothing new in the cinematic firmament. As the very flawed movie and TV versions of Van Gogh ("Lust for Life") illustrates, there's a residual value in merely bringing the singular work of a great artist into the focus of the mainstream. One might also praise this bio for bringing such a great beauty as Zylberstein into view. There's no problem in accepting the fictional acclamation of her looks as perfectly logical. The lady is magical.
Omid Djalili is a poor choice as Picasso. The artist himself has been seen on film enough to understand that this casting makes a poor proxy. As for the other artists, they aren't focused on enough to make accuracy much of an issue.
What is quite outstanding, and a major reason to endure the belabored movie, after Zilberstein) is the artistry of the cinematography. One might say with faces like that of Andy Garcia's and Elsa Zilberstein's any frame will be beautiful. But cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh's strong source lighting takes his subjects into the area of deeper accomplishment. The spareness, the shadowy chiaroscuro effects, and the deep textures are a constant visual reminder of the artist and period we're looking at here.
I appreciate "Modigliani" as a heartfelt tribute. To that extent, it's a noble failure. Its excesses of dramatics, pretentiousness, and more than 2-hour running time are what make it so.