Some of the enormous drama inherent in the life of sculptor and painter Modigliani is captured in Mick Davis’ film of the same name that concentrates on the final year of the artist’s life in Paris. But thoughtful production design and casting of Andy Garcia in the title role, along with looks-just-right Elsa Zylberstein as his long-suffering muse, can’t overcome a didactic script. Failing to invest famous characters with the depth to break free of a made-for-TV feel, earnest misfire does make one want to read up on the real Modigliani. Theatrical prospects look modest, with Jewish fests a lock.
In Paris in the late teens, the competitive animosity between still-struggling Amedeo Modigliani (Garcia) and already successful Pablo Picasso (Omid Djalili) takes center stage. Running parallel is the obsessive love of well-born Jeanne Hebuterne (Zylberstein) for the penniless Italian she calls “Modi.”
When Jeanne has his child out of wedlock, her rigid Catholic father threatens to give the baby up for adoption unless his daughter makes a clean break from the Jewish painter. But, great loves and great art were all the rage in Paris after World War I.
Irreverent and impetuous Modi lives in squalor and courts disaster by drinking absinthe despite the ravages of TB. Diego Rivera, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Utrillo (Hippolyte Girardot), Kisling, Soutine, Picasso and Picasso’s then-wife Olga (Eva Herzigova) pop in and out, lurching from desperate or cruel situation to, uh, desperate or cruel situation.
Narrative’s central question is whether Modi and Picasso will relent and sign up for the one-canvas-takes-all Salon des Artistes competition. Although Modi desperately needs the cash prize — Jeanne is pregnant again — he is too proud to participate. Or is he?
One of pic’s most arresting scenes is a flashback set in Modigliani’s hometown of Livorno, Italy, when he was a boy. As government officials try to confiscate the family’s belongings for back taxes, the clan invokes an ancient custom proclaiming any possessions on a pregnant woman’s bed may not be seized: The young Amedeo’s mother is in labor with furniture and chandeliers piled up on her mattress.
Another memorable scene has Picasso — the proud owner of a flashy motorcar — drive his artistic rival to the country to meet ‘God”: the elderly Auguste Renoir.
All set pieces and forced intensity, pic never really settles into a rhythm conducive to suspension of disbelief. Desaturated color perversely calls attention to itself instead of facilitating the process of stepping back in time.
Romania fills in reasonably well for Montparnasse, but Davis’ hand simply is not sure enough to bring a bygone era fully to life. James Ivory’s “Surviving Picasso” or even Alan Rudolph’s “The Moderns” had far more spark, although it may be true that films about European artistic communities where all thesps speak English — with or without an “accent” — rarely convince.
That said, Hippolyte Girardot is touching as Modi’s close pal Utrillo, who lands in a genuinely creepy loony bin. As the oval-faced, swan-necked Jeanne of countless portraits, Zylberstein — who has thesped up a storm in the past year and is rarely absent from Paris hardtops — is as crafty a physical fit as Shelly Duvall was as Olive Oyl.
The usually more versatile Garcia fills Modi’s trademark corduroy suit with a measure of pauper’s panache. But his Brave Face 101 proves too smiley to convey the hurt-laced ambition that gnaws at Modigliani’s doomed, self-destructive soul. Initially jarring, Djalili’s Picasso gathers steam.
Irritating musical score is all wrong; it would be worth seeing if the film improves simply by suppressing it.