Modigliani Movie Review
After a brief prelude, the film picks up Modigliani's story in 1919, the year before his death, at a time when modern art was flourishing in Paris. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, and Jean Cocteau haunted the cafes at night as their fame and influence spread over the globe. It is here, in a café, where Modigliani (Andy Garcia) makes his entrance, drunkenly hopping onto a table and publicly ridiculing Picasso with the question, "How do you make love to a cube?"
It's a good question, and, if the film is to be believed, one that sincerely troubles Modigliani. His bitter rivalry with Picasso (Omid Djalili) is one of the story's primary threads. Time and again, Davis pits Modigliani against Picasso. At a party, in a cafe, at an exhibition, in a car, wherever their paths cross Modigliani and Picasso end up in a showdown of artistic lights -- the sort of high-noon confrontation usually reserved for westerns. At times, the effect is unintentionally comic, as it is when Picasso, dressed up as a samurai, threatens to unsheathe his sword and "draw blood."
Regardless, the message is clear: Modigliani's belief in his work and his passion for art are unconditional. No one can touch them, not even Picasso. Unfortunately, however, the film never shows us the source of Modigliani's convictions, the deep forces that drive his work. We never know where he's coming from. We only know that he's an artist.
Davis instead fills his script with incident, emphasizing the legend of the artist's heavy drinking and hashish addiction, his cattiness toward Picasso, and finally his sadly tumultuous relationship with Jeanne Hébuterne (Elsa Zylberstein) -- who stays with Modigliani, a Jew, despite the vehement protest of her Catholic father.
As the film works its way to its tragic end, the disparate elements of the story ultimately come together around a painting competition. Modigliani, Picasso, Rivera, and all of the major players of the Paris art scene enter. It is Modigliani's chance to justify his waywardness, to redeem Hébuterne's unquestioning loyalty to him, and to prove the importance and genius of his work. Davis is skillful in weaving these storylines together and bringing the film to a close, but by the time the end credits roll, little is known about Modigliani other than that he was a drunk, a passionate lover, and a painter. The central questions still remain: Who was he, really, and why did he paint like that?
The actors can't be faulted. They're all skillful in their portrayals. Garcia manages to express both anguish and exuberance without resorting to simple scenery-chewing. Likewise, Djalili is enjoyable as Picasso -- simultaneously smug, malicious, and petty. And Zylberstein registers an appropriately high emotional pitch in her turn as Modigliani's longsuffering lover and wife.
Rather, Modigliani's problems lie in its contentment with superficial clichés. It is a portrait of the artist as a madman -- nothing more.