"Modigliani," a 2004 offering starring Andy Garcia, is one of those historical/biographical films that so invests the viewer with a sympathy for and interest in the central character, that it is a sad disappointment to learn that most of what one sees on the screen is untrue.
True, a disclaimer in the beginning warns the viewer that this is a work of fiction, but as with so many Oliver Stone "docudramas," there are no clear indications where history ends and fiction begins. In real life, Amedeo Modigliani was a painter and a sculptor. He bounced between France and his native Italy as his ever deteriorating health dictated, the deterioration caused by a life long tubercular condition, fueled by booze, drugs and (if the film is to be believed) chain smoking. He had a very public affair with a well known bisexual writer, but later became smitten with a local Parisian girl, with whom he took up and lived out the remainder of his short life. Yes, Modigliani struggled for most of his life. Yes, he lived in the same post-WW I Paris as did Picaso. Yes, he died young, at 35. And yes, Jeanne, the love of his life, did take her own life, and that of their unborn second child, upon his death. But the Modigliani we meet in the film is not this man.
Perhaps the reason for this was screenwriter Mick Davis' need to collapse an entire life into a film lasting only 127 minutes. Perhaps Mr. Davis just used the historical highpoints as the inner structure for the story he wanted to tell. Or perhaps he just could not resist the familiar and by now trite tale of the doomed artist achieving his greatest triumph just as his wretched excesses finally overtake him.
The resulting film, in spite of the title character being masterfully played by Andy Garcia, is predictable even to those who have never heard of Modigliani or ever seen his work. Certain central characters -Jeanne's virulently anti-Semitic father, is a prime illustration- and the parts they play in the film could have easily been excluded in favor of greater exploration of the historical Modigliani. His development as an artist, by way of example, is completely ignored. The viewer, therefore, is never quite sure whether the sympathy the film builds for the title character is warranted or not. Until the end, the film begs the question of whether Modigliani was any good as an artist...or not.
These things said, the film does have much to recommend it. Beyond Garcia's performance, the decadent excess of post-WW I Europe has not been so well captured since "Cabaret." The score is both bold and enticing. The fevered scenes leading up to the film's final moments truly capture the creative frenzy that great artists experience as genius takes over from rote. And the film does succeed in making the viewer believe that he or she is actually seeing this pivotal point in Western art very much as it must have been.
Still, it is saddening to realize when the film ends and the lights come on that what one has viewed was more Hollywood than history. When Disney's "Pocahontas" was screened for a huge outdoor crowd in New York's Central Park, one reviewer wrote that she had to point out to a friend who was totally taken with the film, that the Disney version of the story was glaringly historically inaccurate. Faced with the fact that actually history was much different than what the film depicted, the friend made a choice. Referring to the film, she reportedly said, "Well, I like THIS version better." So it may be with Modigliani. It may not be accurate, but viewers may like the film much more than they would the actual facts of the man's life.