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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 05/14/1998,


Agnès Merlet has promising material in this story of Europe's "first acknowledged female painter" (no mention of Hildegard von Bingen), but she turns it into a French version of Masterpiece Theatre, with bittersweet romantic music and whispered voiceovers. The year is 1610, the city is Rome, and 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi) is, like her artist father, Orazio (Michel Serrault), a disciple of Caravaggio -- but women aren't permitted to study male anatomy or enter the Academy of Arts. Her father allows her to become the pupil of his collaborator, the Florentine painter Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), whereupon Artemisia winds up studying Agostino's anatomy, not to mention techniques that go beyond art. Furious, Orazio drags Agostino into court and charges him with rape; he gets two years in prison and a tearful Artemisia never sees him again, though she does go on to be a famous painter.

Why Orazio Gentileschi risked scandal to take his daughter's seducer to court is a mystery Merlet doesn't penetrate in this combination feminist anthem and tale of sexual awakening that would sit more comfortably in 1910. (Artemisia runs about with a freedom Emily Brontë scarcely dreamed of.) There's no acknowledgment that Artemisia eventually married, and no attempt to explain her passion for depicting Judith's beheading of Holofernes (the one real painting of hers we see, a self-portrait, was actually done in the 1630s). Cervi, Serrault, and Manojlovic do good work, but Merlet lionizes these three worthy painters as if they were Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Artemisia deserves better -- she was a woman and an artist, not a female icon of sexual and personal freedom.

-- Jeffrey Gantz