Cinema and art: 10 iconic movies to watch and rewatch

Cinema and art: 10 iconic movies to watch and rewatch

film sull'arte da vedere
film sull'arte da vedere

What kind of character did Michelangelo have? What is Van Gogh’s story? And how did Pollock achieve success? Movies often reveal little-known aspects or events and offer new interpretations of the personalities and lives of even the most famous artists. The relationship between cinema and art is long and prolific: in this article, we have selected 10 titles that should be in the filmography of any enthusiast of the genre.

basquiat julian schnabel
Basquiat, Julian Schnabel

1. Basquiat by Julian Schnabel, 1996

An immersion into 1980s New York, between poverty and wealth, Basquiat by Julian Schnabel offers a complex yet engaging portrait of one of the most renowned graffiti artists of all time. Jean-Michel Basquiat, masterfully played by Jeffrey Wright, is a nineteen-year-old of mixed origin, homeless, and addicted to drugs. Encouraged by his friend Benny (Benicio Del Toro), he turns his only passion – painting – into a successful career, but he cannot escape his inner torment. Basquiat emerges as a conflicted figure, torn between the pressures of fame, personal relationships, and drug abuse. A key figure in his artistic journey is Andy Warhol (a highly credible David Bowie). With Warhol, the young talent forms a friendship marked by suspicions and uncertainties that will accompany him until his premature death at only 27. The cast also includes Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, Dennis Hopper, and Willem Dafoe.

Van Gogh - Sulla soglia dell’eternità, Julian Schnabel
At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel

2. At Eternity’s Gate by Julian Schnabel, 2018

Julian Schnabel also directed another highly interesting film: At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe as the famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, whom we follow during the final years of his career. Unable to integrate into the judgmental and conformist Paris art scene, Van Gogh moves to the town of Arles in southern France. There, he finds a sense of freedom and communion with nature, which leads him to create some of his most famous masterpieces, but also brings him into conflict with the local inhabitants, who see him as nothing but a madman. Rejected by the community, abandoned by his friend Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and comforted only by his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), Van Gogh continues to seek an impossible inner peace and recognition that, as history teaches us, will come too late.

Pollock, Ed Harris,
Pollock, Ed Harris,

3. Pollock by Ed Harris, 2003

Directed, produced, and starred by Ed Harris, this biopic of Jackson Pollock traces the life of the significant American expressionist from the 1940s until his death. A life filled with successes, from solo exhibitions to official entry into the art world thanks to the patronage of the influential Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan). But also dark moments, due to alcoholism and a pessimistic view of the present and future. Beside the artist, the painter’s first partner and then wife Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, whose role in the film earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Despite her care and support, Pollock cannot contain his inconsolable malaise and ends up becoming a victim of himself. 
A debut as a director that impresses with its accuracy and narrative rigor.

Volevo nascondermi, Giorgio Diritti,
Volevo nascondermi, Giorgio Diritti

4. Volevo nascondermi by Giorgio Diritti, 2020

An unforgettable performance by Elio Germano in Volevo nascondermi, a film by Giorgio Diritti about the life of Antonio Ligabue, from his difficult childhood in Switzerland to his forced move to Italy, near a small town in Emilia along the Po river.Ligabue – “Toni” or “El Tudesc”, as the locals call him – lives at the mercy of his inner demons, sleeping in a makeshift shelter among the trees near the river. Until, encouraged by sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati, he begins to paint. Roosters, rabbits, cats, tigers, and exotic animals occupy the mind and canvases of the eccentric painter, and their naive strokes and vibrant colors win the public’s favor. Marginalized, despised, ridiculed, Ligabue starts making a name for himself and indulges his passion for engines, accumulating over 10 motorcycles. The film, faithful to sources and historical facts, offers a portrait of great humanity, a touching quest for understanding and inclusion.

Caravaggio, Derek Jarman
Caravaggio, Derek Jarman

5. Caravaggio by Derek Jarman, 1986

Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival and the film debut of Tilda Swinton (Lena) and Sean Bean (Ranuccio Tomassoni), this film depicts the rise and fall of Caravaggio.
A fictionalized and anachronistic portrayal, it opens with Merisi (Nigel Terry) on his deathbed, dreaming and reliving the most significant moments of his career. We see him as a young man in Rome, painting his self-portrait as Bacco, in his studio at Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte’s (Michael Gough), with Medusa freshly painted, or working on other masterpieces. Tension, including sexual, grows as Caravaggio involves a couple, Ranuccio, a low-life wrestler, and his wife Lena, as models for his paintings. A triangle of attraction and repulsion that will have disastrous consequences for all.
Derek Jarman demonstrates a unique and highly personal aesthetic originality in this film, manifested in every detail: from the sparse narrative to the deliberately crude artistic reproductions and the inclusion of anachronistic props like calculators, electric lights, and sounds of trains and radios.

Final portrait - L’arte di essere amici, Stanley Tucci
Final portrait, Stanley Tucci

6. Final portrait by Stanley Tucci, 2017

A different genre and subject, Final Portrait by Stanley Tucci takes us into the studio – and chaos – of Alberto Giacometti. The film covers only two weeks but manages to provide a credible and engaging depiction of the Swiss artist’s working methods (thanks also to the physical resemblance of lead actor Geoffrey Rush). The film narrates the days leading up to the creation of a portrait of writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), a friend of Giacometti. Convinced to pose by the artist, Lord finds himself inadvertently trapped in a often destructive creative process, marked by permanent dissatisfaction, outbursts of anger, relationship crises, and identity struggles. However, there are moments of genuine humor, escape, and tenderness that brighten the tones of the film, all played in grays like the sculptor-painter’s palette. A curious and delicate story, enjoyable to watch and read: the story is indeed taken from Lord’s book A Giacometti Portrait.

Artemisia - Passione estrema, Agnès Merlet
Artemisia, Agnès Merlet

7. Artemisia by Agnès Merlet, 1997

The extreme passion in the title refers to the relationship between Artemisia Gentileschi and painter Agostino Tassi. It’s 1610, Artemisia (Valentina Cervi) is 17 and has a talent for painting, which her father Orazio (Michel Serrault), a renowned artist, cultivates by showing her Caravaggio’s works. Unable to attend the Academy or have nude models – being a woman – she gets her father’s permission to receive private lessons in perspective from Tassi (Miki Manojlovic). An attraction develops between the two, leading to seduction. Tassi is accused of rape by Orazio Gentileschi and, confessing guilt, is sentenced to two years in prison. The incident deeply affects the young artist, who still feels drawn to her mentor despite everything. She decides to leave Rome for Florence, where her career as an artist truly begins. The public and critics especially praise Cervi’s performance for conveying the innocence and passion of one of the greatest female painters of all time.

Il peccato - Il furore di Michelangelo, Andrei Konchalovsky
Sin, Andrei Konchalovsky

8. Sin by Andrei Konchalovsky, 2019

An Italian-Russian co-production that reveals Michelangelo‘s ambition and vulnerabilities. At the height of his fame, after completing the Cappella Sistina frescoes with immense physical effort, Michelangelo (Alberto Testone) is caught between two rival families: the Della Rovere and the Medici. Both families, having alternated on the papal throne – Giulio II Della Rovere (Massimo De Francovich) dies in 1513 and is succeeded by Leo X de’ Medici (Simone Toffanin) – demand that Buonarroti work exclusively for them, despite threats. Driven by the desire to excel, he betrays his friend Sansovino and falls prey to torments and hallucinations, such as those of poet Dante, an invisible presence for others but a constant source of moral inspiration for the artist. Nonetheless, he achieves great feats, like moving an enormous block of marble (nicknamed “the monster”) and completing the Moses statue. Dirty, tattered, despised by colleagues, and pursued by patrons, yet also cultured, generous, and brilliant: Michelangelo is portrayed here in full, with his virtues and flaws, as if he were one of his sculptures.

Montparnasse 19 - Les amants de Montparnasse, Jacques Becker,
Montparnasse 19 – Les amants de Montparnasse, Jacques Becker,

9. Montparnasse 19 – Les amants de Montparnasse by Jacques Becker,1958

Troubled and unlucky, the life of Amedeo Modigliani, known as Modì, is told with delicacy and skill by Jacques Becker in this 1958 film.The years depicted are those of the painter’s stay in Paris, between 1916 and 1920, characterized by the patronage of Leopold Zborowski, multiple romantic relationships, and addiction to alcohol and tobacco. Modì (Gérard Philipe)’s tumultuous love affair with Jeanne Hébuterne (Anouk Aimée) is chronicled: she becomes his muse and inseparable companion, despite difficulties, after meeting him following a conflict with his lover, English writer Beatrice Hastings (Lilli Palmer). Yet problems abound, with substance abuse, the painter’s frail health (he had tuberculosis), poverty, and lack of artistic recognition, culminating in the failure of his first solo exhibition. Real events enhance the emotional vividness of the film, set against a bohemian early 20th century Paris. A film that continues to captivate even years later.

Bande à part, Jean-Luc Godard
Bande à part, Jean-Luc Godard

10. Bande à part byJean-Luc Godard, 1964

We conclude this brief review of must-watch art movies with a classic that isn’t a biography of an artist but is, in some ways, a work of art itself.
Band à part by Jean-Luc Godard is a film that references and disrupts genres: part romantic comedy, part thriller, part noir, mixing light and shadows, lightness and darkness. Odile (Anna Karina, then Godard’s wife and muse) reveals to Franz (Sami Frey) and his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) that a large sum of money is hidden in her aunt’s house. The two, broke and attracted as much to the girl as to the prospect of the loot, plan the theft with her complicity. Things don’t go as planned for any of them: smitten with the brooding Arthur, Odile ends up having to settle for the more bland Franz.
What does art have to do with this? The film features one of the most iconic scenes in cinema: the famous race of the three through the Louvre to beat the 9-minute visit record set by an American. A gesture of carefree spirit and directorial mockery at the same time, irreverent and liberating: unforgettable also due to subsequent references, such as in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).

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As all these titles show, art, in its infinite variety of forms and meanings, has always had the power to inspire, provoke, and transform. The cinematic portrayal of the human and artistic stories of its protagonists allows us to appreciate the complexity and dedication behind each work: a unique and stimulating spectacle.

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