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Valentina Cervi first came to notice in Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady - her work in the controversially sexy new French period drama, Artemisia, has made a big impression. Cervi spoke exclusively to PAUL FISCHER following the film's North American premiere at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival.

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 talent search.

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 role."

"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 woman."

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, was similar."

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 problem."

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 creatively."

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".

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(Photo: Joodi Kopperman)


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