On his deathbed, Picasso is alleged to have whispered “Modigliani,” the name of the Italian painter with whom he shared a tumultuous friendship in the Paris of the 1920s. Amedeo Modigliani, known chiefly for his sensual, primitive-looking nudes, succumbed to a lethal trifecta of tuberculosis, addiction and poverty 50 years earlier at the age of 35. Much hay is made from Picasso’s apocryphal utterance in director Mick Davis’ new film “Modigliani,” a three hour visual love letter that, like its subject, is both beautiful and flawed — but not fatally so.
Paris between the World Wars has long been a point of fascination for filmmakers and no wonder why — the period is rife with sensual imagery and was a veritable group photo of marquee names. “The Moderns” comes to mind as an early attempt to capture the era as does “Henry and June,” which inspired many a self-styled anachronist to scrawl nonsense into a moleskin notebook and set off an epidemic of soft-core bisexuality among the café set of 1990. The sprawling “Modigliani,” however, yields little of this kind of effect, neither spurring one to paint nor live in some Parisian garret, which, granted, cannot always be expected. However, it may spark an interest in film editing, for somewhere in its bushels of footage lurks a great movie. As it stands, “Modigliani” is a really good film larded by subplots that do little to obscure the fact that, ultimately, the film is a bio-pic.
Like many films of this genre, “Modigliani falters in terms of story – or at least choosing one of the several woven here in a contingency of subplots that never quite come together. The film relies on what can be called the “The Amadeus” model of bio-pics, after the Oscar-winning Milos Forman picture that set the bar for artist biographies. It’s like one of those analogies on IQ tests: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is to Amadeo Modigliani as Pablo Picasso is to Antonio Salieri – except the polarity of the professional envy is reversed. In this film, Picasso, an awesome talent in his own right, is already established and on his way to making a fortune, whereas Modigliani can hardly stop carousing long enough to get out a nude or two. Then he dies.
Ah, but it’s a great death thanks to Andy Garcia who plays the title character. Though the reek of Oscar-bait occasionally wafts in, Garcia deftly depicts the artist’s turmoil over his failures and jealousies (not to mention his sketchy love life). He performance appears effortless and is a joy to watch though sometimes it’s hard to believe that the character could bottom-out so easily. Not that Garcia doesn’t deliver, it’s just that he is one of those actors blessed (or perhaps cursed) with such a likable face that it’s hard to imagine the dude ever having a bad day.
Lauded in the film’s press materials as “Britain’s only Iranian stand-up comedian and actor” Omid Djalili does a superb turn as the arrogant Picasso. In a scene where Modigliani signs up for an art competition and silently challenges Picasso to do likewise from across a cafe, Djalili masterfully conveys intrigue, pomp and dread with a single expression on his apple-cheeked face. The scene sizzles between the actors as Djalili’s haughty Spaniard plucks a grease pencil from Modigliani’s pocket and autographs the sign-up sheet on the wall with his now-priceless signature. This moment is almost enough to recommend the film in and of itself and is testament to director Davis’ ability to generate palpable synergy between his players.
Throughout, some paint-by-numbers flashbacks attempt to hitch some Freudian hoo-ha to Modigliani’s personal travails but results in little more than a projection of his inner child wagging a finger every time he passes a bar. A subplot regarding Modigliani’s illegitimate offspring being shipped off by an anti-Semitic father-in-law seems grafted on, though the aforementioned art competition bolsters the third act with some wonderful drama and director Davis artfully manages not to telegraph who is going to win.
Production designer Giantito Burchiellaro succeeds in making Bucharest, Romania (an inexpensive shooting location) look like post-World War I Paris and cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh’s verite-style camera work adds both verisimilitude and immediacy to the film. And yet, one always feels like the characters are behind glass. Perhaps it’s the briskness with which we meet them or how historic milestone moments are merely glossed. Such luminaries of the era as Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Gertrude Stein have walk-ons but there is little context to frame them so they blur into Davis’ canvass like so many dollops of pigment.
Modigliani’s introduction in the film culminates in a telling moment between him
and Picasso when, after he publicly humiliates his friend and rival, Picasso asks “Why do you hate me so much?” and Modigliani replies “I love you, Pablo, it’s myself I hate.”
Likewise, one may love Modigliani, but merely like the film that bears his name.