Hidden Away review - makes a rich, heavy meal of a biopic of feral Italian painter

This account of the tough, troubled life of naive artist Antonio Ligabue boasts a committed performance from actor Elio Germano

Giorgio Diritti has directed a lovely-looking and fervent film about the life of the 20th-century naive artist Antonio Ligabue, who suffered poverty and mental illness throughout his life but whose fierce, primitive, impassioned studies and sculptures of animals and human portraits made him celebrated in his own day as an authentic unschooled genius, and an object of cult fascination from the metropolitan elite who perhaps regarded him as comparable to Van Gogh. (There was another biopic in 1978, with Suspiria star Flavio Bucci in the lead.)

The Italian actor Elio Germano stars as Ligabue here, with a performance that has something of both Daniel Auteuil and Daniel Day Lewis — and also, maybe, a little of Sacha Baron Cohen. He plays him with the stoop, the shuffle, the fierce glare, the occasional equine twitch of the head and teeth-baring and drooping lower lip. This is a congenital dysfunction but also the natural brusqueness of the creative spirit and someone who does not suffer fools gladly (despite or because of being dismissed as a fool all his life). And for all that Ligabue once lived an almost feral existence, he is someone with some sense of the good things in life, particularly a decent meal in a restaurant.

The film shows how Ligabue was born in Italy, entrusted to Swiss foster parents after the death of his mother, bullied and tormented as a child, confined to a psychiatric hospital; heartlessly expelled from Switzerland and found himself living in grinding poverty as a farm labourer in northern Italy. A chance meeting with the painter Renato Marino Mazzacurati (Pietro Traldi) unlocks Ligabue’s extraordinary talent. Germano conveys the inner agony and loneliness of someone who has had to contend with boiling emotions all his life, removed from both his country and his mother’s love, and is then vouchsafed the miracle of artistic talent — a safety valve for his feelings and the means to make a living, if not exactly a fortune.

Watching Hidden Away is like eating a rich and heavy meal, which is delicious a lot of the time. It is visually very strong, and does not fall into the trap of tying to look in some way like Ligabue’s paintings themselves. But many of the wide shots are certainly (and justifiably) presented as spacious, beautiful canvases and there is a wonderful and quite surreal shot of a cornfield with Ligabue’s stone statue of a lion floating across it. In fact, a closeup shows that it is being transported by a tractor which soon runs out of petrol.

Germano is utterly, strenuously committed; and he is very good at conveying the pure discontent of a true artist: the simmering, demanding fury that everything should measure up to his vision. It is a mighty performance, and Germano must surely be in line for the festival’s Silver Bear for best actor.

• This article was amended on 3 March 2020 because an earlier version contained some misspellings of Antonio Ligabue’s last name. This has been corrected.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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