Movie Review: Modigliani

As the starting credits roll for Modigliani, a written explanation cautions the viewer this is a work of fiction, and the film is not necessarily attempting to remain true to hard facts around the artist’s actual life. This is a shame because I later discovered the artist’s life was more compelling than what this work allows. Admittedly knowing little about the artist prior to this, I was still anxious to learn what I could about him.

Andy Garcia stars in the leading role of the film which focuses mainly on the final years of the artist’s life. The story takes place in Italy and is rich with interesting subplots. Modigliani, who is Jewish, falls in love with his catholic girlfriend, Jeanne Hébuterne. Her father’s displeasure toward their union quickly explodes into outrage over the birth of the couple’s first child. The mindlessness of prejudice produces a triangle of conflict between Modigliani, Jeanne, and her parents who use the baby as a pawn to demonstrate their disdain. At the same time, Modigliani himself is battling to survive as an artist. His casual approach to life and practical matters seem to be in rebellion to his circumstances. He is known throughout Italy but struggles to sell his paintings. These challenges, among other factors, feed Modigliani’s penchant for alcohol and drugs; enabling him to seemingly escape the dramas of his life, they eventually contribute to his untimely death at the age of thirty-five.

The most intriguing subplot of the film, however, is the continuous love/hate relationship between Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. Played by Omid Djalili, whose face manages to capture the intensity of the famous artist, the actor provides a well-intended, if exaggerated, portrayal of the artist. Undoubtedly, Picasso’s arrogance was well-known, but the hot-headed nature of his character in this film makes for a bloated caricature appearing to be more of a symbolic statement than a faithful representation. Nevertheless, the contrasting and competing nature of the two artists, as they strive for greatness, makes for a captivating anecdote.

The climax of this matchup unfortunately appears in the film’s weakest sequence. Both artists enter a juried competition, along with several other known artists of the time, including Diego Rivera. A rather absurd scene ensues, depicting each of the artists and their frantic painting process as they toil through feigned rituals to complete work specifically for the upcoming exhibition. The director takes us to the backside of each canvas in development to find its artist wildly waving brushes, attacking the surface like madmen casting spells at their own creation. Adding insult to injury, the background suddenly fills with a blundering score of contemporary beat music that is completely out of place in this movie. The music is not utilized before or after this scene rendering it both awkward and impotent.

In spite of several intriguing story lines with a fascinating cast, the movie never reaches its full potential. Though capably played by Garcia, Modigliani’s character simply lacks depth. There are certainly enough circumstances and implications throughout the film to explore the complexity of the artist’s conflicting angst and charm, but the role is diluted by an overly-ambitious script and countered by other characters, such as little Dedo (Modigliani as a boy, often at the elder’s side serving as a gentle reminder of kindness and purity lost) and the stronger figure of Picasso.

After the film was over, I researched more about the artist. The result was a wealth of information on a complex, tragic figure of contemporary art that left us all too soon. I believe the film may have been better if it had remained true to facts, delving further into character development and making a clear choice on what story to follow; simplifying to be effective. All in all, this is a decent movie that misses the opportunity to live up to its full potential, much like Modigliani himself.