Artemesia

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Artemesia

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Artemesia

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Artemesia is rife with troubling contradictions. Though it opens with the words, "The following is a true story," feminist historians have argued that it is not only not a true story, but a travesty: Artemesia turns the rape of the title character—a pioneering 17th-century artist played here by Valentina Cervi—by a painter with a history of sexual assault (Miki Manojlovic) into a romantic tale of lovers torn apart by the hypocrisies of a repressive society. But apart from the controversy over the true nature of the protagonists' relationship, Artemesia is idiosyncratic in other ways, as well. It's an ostensibly feminist biopic about a strong, brilliant woman that nonetheless sees its heroine almost entirely within the context of her sexuality and her relationship with creative, powerful men. But if Artemesia is historically inaccurate and conflicted in its ideology, it's also a powerfully acted and well-crafted historical drama that's never quite as simplistic as its detractors would imply. A great deal of the film's ambiguity is derived from the jarring, almost brutal nature of Manojlovic's courtship of Cervi. Up until the scene in which Manojlovic deflowers her, their relationship seems less like a romantic endeavor than a titanic battle of wills. And given that the two combatants are a virginal 17-year-old and her sexually voracious, middle-aged teacher, the relationship is at best a monumental abuse of power and authority. As the film's enigmatic heroine, Cervi gives a moving performance, at once feral and sad; her scenes with Manojlovic are charged with a chemistry that's disturbing, intense, and oddly poignant. But as good as Cervi is, Manojlovic more than holds his own, giving his character both a disarming vulnerability and an almost palpable air of physical menace. Though it turns disappointingly conventional during its final third, Artemesia is still a powerful, unsettling look at the messy intersection of sex, power, creativity, and societal control.

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