Modigliani Examines the Jewish Painter?s Tempestuous Life

By Tom Tugend

May 2005


Modigliani Examines the Jewish Painter?s Tempestuous Life and Death

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

LOS ANGELES, May 8 (JTA)–The tortured, self-destructive painter, unappreciated in his lifetime, finding solace in wine and women, is an irresistible subject for moviemakers.

Now, following screen portraits of Michelangelo (Charlton Heston), van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), Picasso (Anthony Hopkins) and Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris), it’s the turn of Amedeo Modigliani.

“Modi,” as he was known to the art world, was a strikingly handsome man and a great artist, but fond of booze and hash, given to violent rages, suffering from tuberculosis–and a Jew and Italian to boot.

Modigliani was born in 1884 and died in 1920. The film version of Modigliani plays out the last years of his life, when bohemian Paris, rebounding from the slaughter of World War I, was the world’s artistic capital.

Joining Modi in cafes and bars are painters Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Utrillo, Chaim Soutine and their hangers-on, writers Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob. Even the venerable Pierre-Auguste Renoir puts in an appearance.

Andy Garcia pours his talent and passion into the title role, and the agony and ecstasy (thanks, Irving Stone) of the artistic sensibility comes through with full force, occasionally spilling over the top.

The film, told in flashbacks as Modigliani lies on his deathbed, includes a scene in his native Livorno, where his pious but bankrupt family is about to be evicted from their home. The furniture is piled high on the mother’s bed, because Italian law stipulates that police cannot confiscate belongings on the bed of a pregnant woman.

In Paris, Modigliani starts out as a sculptor, strongly influenced by African art. The style carries over into his paintings of people, with their distinctive oval faces, elongated necks and simplified features.

Soon he meets and beds a shy 18-year-old art student, Jeanne Hebuterne, raised in a bourgeois Catholic household.

The father strongly disapproves of his daughter’s liaison with a starving artist–and their resultant love child–and becomes fully enraged when he learns that her lover is a Jew.

Confrontations between the two men lead to blows, and the father spirits her away.

To earn some money, Modigliani agrees to enter Paris’ premier art competition, which pits him against the already famous Picasso.

In the runup to the contest, the two antagonists, as well as Rivera, Utrillo and Soutine, are shown in their respective studios, all painting away furiously at their masterpieces.

Director-writer Mick Davis, a Glasgow native, has taken some liberties with the facts, adding an overdramatized death to an already dramatic life. Britain’s Miriam Margolyes, who is Jewish, has a warm and funny turn as Gertrude Stein.

The film offers two genuine pleasures: The performance of French actress Elsa Zylberstein and the cinematography of Emmanuel Kadosh–two names to gladden a Jewish heart.

Zylberstein is luminous as Jeanne, Modigliani’s lover, fragile in appearance but determined to fight and suffer to protect her man, even from himself.

In a phone call from her native Paris, the 35-year-old actress reported that she is Polish Jewish on her father’s side and French Catholic on her mother’s side.

“I was raised in both faiths, though being Jewish is more a cultural than a religious factor in my life,” she said. “We go to a temple but we also have a Christmas tree.”

She was trained as a classical dancer and has made 15 films. She scored her first success in the 1994 French film Mina Tannenbaum, in which she played one of two Jewish girls in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

In competition at the Cannes Film Festival is La Petite Jerusalem, or Little Jerusalem, in which she describes her role as that of a “dry and religious Jewish woman” living in a Paris suburb.

Zylberstein speaks fluent English and her big ambition now is to act in British and American films.

The work of Israeli cinematographer Kadosh lifts the film to another artistic level. With Romania substituting for Paris in 1919, Kadosh captures the feeling of the City of Lights–and shadows–with the eyes of a painter.

Viewers hungering for more portrayals of tempestuous artists can look forward to “Klimt,” the story of fin de siecle Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, starring John Malkovich, due out soon.


About Tom Tugend

Tom Tugend is a contributing editor to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.