Screen Tests

Just in case you thought war was all randy married women and fresh bread, the filmmakers -- in a scene that lasts, oh, maybe 90 seconds -- quickly parade in two anonymous fascist spies and have them meet their maker via firing squad. Andres witnesses the incident, gets all broody (Faye has disappeared), and as a result is sent from the battle-free front to live with his sergeant's family in Barcelona. There he winds up in bed with Sarge's voluptuous teenage virgin daughter (Ingrid Rubio), except they don't go all the way because, you know, she's totally inexperienced.

Suddenly, war over -- just like that. Republicans out. Franco in. Andres (now played by hunky Juan Diego Botto) a few years older. His luminous mother materializes with her fascist bigwig boyfriend, who sets up Andres and mom in a stylish apartment. The guy has a great life: no job, cool clothes, might go to school. Still he broods. Bring on the babes! In quick succession, he boffs three gorgeous older women: a cheery peasant from his war days (Rosana Pastor), the married upstairs-neighbor lady (Joanna Pacula), and a touring Italian star-violinist (Florence Pernel), all of whom protest for five seconds before allowing the studly Andres to ravish them. (Much cackling here.)

Not only will In Praise of Older Women offend female moviegoers as a result of its depiction of women as nothing more than pleasure-givers, it will insult men with its portrayal of protagonist Andres as a twit who thinks with his penis. To make matters worse, Lombardero and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine fetishize everything: not just women's underclothes, which pop up time and again, but a radio, cigarette packs, a train, steam, smoke, buildings, ocean, land, women's breasts, fruit. Every object in this film exists as a sort of sexual accouterment -- pungent, succulent, and ripe -- mere foreplay aids. And the pair bathes it all in caressing, sunny hues of amber and gold.

But Lombardero, Azcona, and Alcaine reveal no truths. They don't even offer up any genuine passion. Ultimately they've created a world that's all surface, reduced love to sex (which they don't bother to show), and attempted to pawn off a visually attractive soft-core stroke movie as a wondrous male rites-of-passage tale. You'll die laughing. (Sunday, February 1, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

French filmmaker Agnes Merlet's movie about real-life, seventeenth-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi takes place in a universe it would be fun to get lost in. Filmed in the deep, rich hues of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, it evokes the luxuriousness of dark furniture, gold foil, and oil paints. In every scene people seem to be eating feasts set up by God's own caterer. The actors are, by and large, physically appealing, the costumes detailed and elaborate. Why then does the film play as flat as an unpainted canvas?

Not because of its subject matter. Based on the story of the woman Renaissance artist who dared to be taken seriously, Artemisia offers a chance for an actress to portray a firebrand and a gatecrasher. The film identifies Artemisia as "the first woman painter in the history of art" -- presumably in the Western tradition. But even if she weren't one of the earliest recognized women artists, her life would still make a great tale, if for no reason other than that she lived at a time when ideas about art were undergoing revolution. Indeed, the story turns on Artemisia's father allowing her to study with an artist who teaches a strange new concept called "perspective."

Seventeen at the time we meet her, Artemisia (Valentina Cervi) was born the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (Michel Serrault), a court portraitist in Rome and the recipient of papal commissions to paint church frescoes. She is the happy inheritor of her father's skill. (Her mother apparently had the good sense to die before the story began.) But because she lives in Renaissance Italy, Artemisia is forbidden to enter the academy or even to use male models. That doesn't stop her from stealing candles and sketching her own nude body late at night in the convent school she attends. Caught by the nuns, Artemisia is sent home, where her father allows her to work in his atelier, finishing portraits and doing fill-in work on his paintings, destined to remain anonymous.

In its worst moments, the movie plays like a feminist docudrama. It doesn't bother to explain the frustration of being a talented woman in the Seventeenth Century. Rather it assumes we know that its heroine has some annoying obstacles to overcome. As portrayed by Cervi, Artemisia is a bundle of nervous energy and self-confidence. But director Merlet has fashioned her feminist heroine as a spunky cartoon suffragette, with her success practically foretold. The notion that she's going against every social and political grain of her time hardly comes into focus.

When the movie works, however, Cervi gives us a feel for Artemisia's voracious curiosity and talent. It's unsettling, then, that the most passionate turn of events concerns the relationship between Orazio and his artistic rival, who happens to be Artemisia's new teacher, Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic). An avant-gardist who's eclipsing Orazio's fame, Tassi becomes Artemisia's teacher and her first lover. The film trips over its own feet with this latter type of instruction. Cervi does an astonishing job of depicting an intelligent woman's curiosity about sex as well as her reaction to her first experience -- a mix of excitement, fear, pleasure, and things gone way out of one's control.

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