In the midst of the Toronto Film Festival where American studios and distributors
flaunt their cinematic wares, one occasionally comes across the odd European film that
dares to be different. Agnès Merlet’s Artemisia, a provocative, erotic period drama
from France, is such a film. The 23 year old Valentina Cervi is dazzling even with minimal
make-up. Already a name in Europe through her performance in Portrait of a Lady, Cervi won
the title role of erotic 17th century painter Artemisia, following a major
It was Cervi's passion to her own art that ultimately won her the coveted role, she
explains in fluent English. "I had known that this French director [ Merlet] was
looking for maybe a Florentine girl. So the casting people asked me to send a tape, which
I did, and in that I was talking about how I see the work of an actor. This is what she
told me impressed her; she saw how passionate I was about my work, and saw similarities
with the Artemisia's own passion." From there, Cervi would embark on five or six
auditions and "after thinking about it a great deal, [Merlet] asked me to play the
"If you really want to touch the strength from within
yourself, you have to accept your weaknesses."
Set in 17th-century Rome, the film recounts the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi
[Cervi] history's first notable female painter. When Artemisia was 17, she fell in love
with painting and wanted to follow in the famous footsteps of her father Orazio Getileschi
(Michel Serrault). Though enrolled in a convent school that frowns on nudity, Artemesia
secretly uses herself as a model for her renderings of female figures. When her father
finds out, he removes her from the school and becomes her teacher. Artemisia is a spirited
lass and pushes the limits again by secretly painting male nudes, something that female
artists were forbidden to do. The loving Orazio still forgives her and even browbeats the
stuffy administrators at the Academy of Fine Arts into allowing her into their previously
men-only campus. Artemisia's undoing comes at the hands of her father's famous womanising
colleague Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic) who becomes her lover, resulting in one of the
most infamous court cases of the time.
After being cast in the film, Cervi immersed herself in the character and the period.
"I began reading everything about her and all the critics of her and her work",
but the actress wanted to go beyond conventional research. "I got to a certain point
where I said to myself: I have to give life to this person, so I cannot look at her as
someone who's bigger than me, I cannot read what other people wrote about her, I cannot
intellectualise too much. Rather I have to see her as a human being, so I tried to work my
way up from her weaknesses and sense of confusion. In so doing, I discovered that I had
the same KIND of confusion, because I think that if you really want to touch the strength
from within yourself, you have to accept your weaknesses."
"She ultimately accepted the fact that she was a
Cervi not only examined the script but read and interpreted between the lines,
"what would have been her normal and daily life. When you create something, I think
that there's always a point where you get to know violence, rage and confusion, and I had
this process inside of me in my work as an actress, so I thought Artemisia, as an artist,
Artemisia, as depicted on screen here, is a complex being whose transformation to
artist is remarkable, and that metamorphosis was also intriguing to the actress.
"When we first see her, she doesn't accept her own femininity and sexuality, possibly
because she had just come out of a convent and what she discovered beyond those walls was
a society that was not even considering women as thinking beings. This made her in a way
not accept herself as a woman, and after that, she understood that to make her art really
complete, she had to give the world her femininity. So observing her body, she ultimately
accepted the fact that she was a woman."
"I didn't know a word of French, which was a
Cervi not only had to research the life of this painter through her art and letters,
but the Italian actress had to learn French specifically for this film. "I didn't
know a word of French, which was a problem. But if you believe you've always spoken
French, if you believed you've always lived in the 17th Century, that you've
always worn those costumes, then that's the first step to gain contact with whatever it is
you're learning. Of course I studied a lot, but there's really no difference in being on a
French movie or some other movie." By the time she had started shooting, however, she
spoke fluent French, "and I was able to talk to the director in perfect French."
Like a native, one might say. "No I wouldn't, because I don't like France, so I don't
want to sound like a native", she adds laughingly.
The film has attained controversy in the US through its graphic depiction of sexuality
and its sheer honesty. Cervi is quick to defend the film's nudity. "It's about art
and it is art, and after all, that's who Artemisia was and what she explored
Cervi shot Artemisia straight after appearing in another, but less well received,
costume drama, Portrait of a Lady. The actress is not concerned at being typecast in
period films. "I'm just interested in doing good work; it's not important if it's a
costume movie or not. But since, she has managed to do an Italian comedy, Figli di
Annibale "and I'm about to do another modern comedy".