Modigliani drinks, smokes and storms through Paris

Since painting is not exactly a spectator sport, movies about painters tend to downplay the creative act in favor of personal torment and public histrionics.

“Modigliani” largely fits that mold, but holds the advantage of having a singularly colorful backdrop. Set in bohemian Paris of 1919, and coinciding with the last year in the turbulent life of Italian Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani, Mick Davis’ baroque melodrama is an ode to wine, art and narcissism.

“Modigliani,” which opens the 14th annual San Jose Jewish Film Festival, is an engaging and spirited work, even if the self-destructive artist who dies before receiving his proper recognition has become a cliché. Rather it is the odd tension between passion and artificiality, and between period and modern, that gives “Modigliani” its juice.

Andy Garcia plays the title character, and in the opening scene he shamelessly invests the painter with all the rakish charm he can muster. It proves a smart move, for Modigliani’s chronic screwups will ultimately dissipate every last drop of our sympathy.

The movie begins with Modigliani flamboyantly commanding the attention of the artsy crème de la crème in a café by taunting Pablo Picasso (played by Omid Djalili). They are cagey rivals, with Picasso a rich success and Modigliani on the verge of breaking through to the same rarefied heights.

The shrewd, self-satisfied Picasso will repay Modigliani’s teasing on several occasions, to both benign and brutal effect. Picasso’s seemingly affectionate use of the nickname Modi takes on a mocking quality if you know that it’s a pun on the French word “maudit,” which means cursed.

Modigliani’s other important relationship is with Jeanne, a Catholic girl 14 years his junior who is his model, his muse and the mother of his child. Nothing weakens her devotion, including her anti-Semitic father’s threats to have the infant removed from her custody.

Modigliani is talented, amusing and a man of the world, so it’s easy to see why Jeanne is crazy about him. But she also has to endure his nonstop drinking and selfishness. The moody painter’s struggle for critical acclaim, public recognition, wealth and immortality is plainly too taxing for mere mortals like Jeanne (and us) to comprehend, and it’s de rigueur that drunken rants and brooding silences come with the territory.

Such behavior, though, doesn’t give us much insight into what drives Modigliani other than jealousy and ego. Does he have something he’s yearning to express in his paintings, or is he only motivated by his competition with Picasso?

The latter, presumably, for “Modigliani” suggests that painting in Montmarte just after the Great War had the head-to-head quality (and audience involvement) of today’s poetry slams. A sequence that cuts jaggedly between Picasso, Modigliani, Diego Rivera, Maurice Utrillo and the Jewish painter Chaim Soutine furiously pushing themselves to create a masterpiece for the annual Paris competition feels more like 1991 than 1919. But it’s wonderful nonetheless, and fairly boils over with the challenge and exuberance of making art.

Between the main character stubbornly sabotaging himself and Gertrude Stein stuffing her face with pastry, “Modigliani” is not the most flattering portrait of Jewish artists ever committed to celluloid. Nonetheless, this film does no lasting damage to either of their legacies.

“Modigliani” screens 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Camera 12, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. www.sjjff.org or (925) 866-9599.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.