Cinema Signal:

Modigliani:
Beyond the Myth
by Maurice Berger

. "Modigliani"

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.


Jeanne Hebuterne with White Collar
1919
Oil on canvas
In one scene, Modigliani is painting a portrait of a young girl while her mother is looking on. When the mother discovers that her daughter is being rendered with the patented Modigliani neckline, she is enraged and refuses to pay him any fee. Now, I ask, has anyone ever commissioned a portrait in any visual medium without first seeing the style of the artist's work? This scene is interesting for its emphasis on Modigliani's exaggerations of faces and figures and its contemporary lack of commercial appeal. But this scene exemplifies all that is artificial, unbelievable and dishonest about the movie.

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.

Click for full list of movie reviews





                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The DVD




Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
Site rating: 7

Adored it.

                                                           ~~ G. 
Perceptive
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
Site rating: 8
                                                           ~~ Caroline W. 
Well written
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
Site rating: 7 New to this website, I will come back and check if it's as good as it seems to be...
Meanwhile, please go on !
                                                           ~~ Philippe D. 




List of reviews:
Release order
Alphabetical order
To Jbmovies
(sample frames from movies photographed
by Jules Brenner)

All Reviews
Books, DVDs, Music, Restaurants




Andy Garcia and Elsa Zilberstein
Amadeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hebuterne
The artist and his great love as model
Help us to continue
bringing you these reviews...
visit our sponsors