It is an absorbing evening spent in the seventeenth century.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"Artemisia" manages the toughest of all movie challenges: to make a period piece without undermining the mood with contemporary sights, accents, or concepts. Evoking seventeenth- century Italy with few jarring notes is a real victory.

Agnes Merlet, who cowrote and directed this film, deserves great credit for sustaining the mood she sets. Working with an international cast-an Italian, a Serb, and a Frenchman-she creates a seductively credible historical mood. She has bathed her story in the soft, rich light of a world that never knew the harsh glare of electricity. It brightens only when the story moves outdoors, where it is washed in bright sunlight as it would have been then, and still is now. That alone strikes a marvelous note of the eternal: that beach, that field, that building have felt this sun for centuries.

At a time when women painters were forbidden to attend classes at the Academy or paint nude male models, Artemisia is a powerful painter determined to do both. She learns what she can at the side of her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, but she steals time to make the drawings of nude males that eventually scandalize the society around her.

Artemisia rushes up to the newly arrived painter, Agostino Tassi, and begs, "Take me as your pupil, you must." Agostino teaches her what he can, but recognizes instantly that the girl is already a master painter. Her hunger for knowledge of the male body leads her to Agostino's bed, but always, she is exploring muscle and function even when her own sexuality is awakened. This is lovemaking with a purpose.

When the camera passes over the rich colors and dark light of interior space, film and paintings become nearly indistinguishable. As we watch a team working on the papal frescoes, a magical sense of the unfamiliar sets in. These are not actors dressed in period clothes, but artists in the working clothes of their day.

When the time comes for a court scene that might have undercut the spell, Agnes Merlet has the great sense to film it in the abstract-fast-cutting camera work that suggests emotions and court traditions rather than spelling them out. In a masterful scene, Artemisia and Agostino bring an unseen landscape to life as they talk of it in terms of color and composition, light, depth, and change.

Valentina Cervi simply becomes the driven painter. In her tented outdoor studio, scurrying (too often) through the fields, or studying men intensely, she leaves no doubt that Artemisia Gentileschi would become a painter of renown, even in disgrace.

This is a movie about Italy spoken entirely in French, a reminder that period stories rarely work well when spoken in modern American English. A European language is essential to the mood of this film. While not speaking to the historical accuracy of this true story, its flavor is pure. It is an absorbing evening spent in the seventeenth century.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 496
Studio : Miramax
Rating : R
Running Time: 1h36m

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