Artist biopics often work best when they take a snapshot of their subject’s lives, digging deep into the artist as a human being during a pivotal moment, so one has to admire the confidence of Hidden Away to utterly reject these lessons. Giorgio Diritti’s film is a cradle to grave biography of enigmatic ‘Naïve’ artist Antonio Ligabue (played by Elio Germano) that folds in his life, his work, his mental health struggles, and the rise and fall of Fascist Italy into just under two hours of runtime. It’s a lot to take on, and Hidden Away does sometimes collapse under the weight of its ambition, but powerful performances and affecting grace notes elevate it past its flaws.
We start with Ligabue as a child in a remote Swiss village, before moving on to his time in an almshouse as a teenager, eventually reaching his adulthood in Italy about 25 minutes into the film. It’s a rocky opening, very nicely shot but scattered in its focus and too fascinated by Ligabue’s learning difficulties, dedicating scene after scene to him being brutally bullied by classmates, teachers, doctors, and adoptive parents. It is effectively distressing to start with, but eventually feels gratuitous and cheap.
Things pick up once Germano takes over as the adult Ligabue and the world starts taking notice of Ligabue’s art. Germano’s performance, though a little on the broad side in terms of sensitive depictions of mental illness, is forceful and committed, capturing Ligabue’s idiosyncratic pursuit of perfection and his rage when the world conspires to keep him from it. Diritti doesn’t try and give us many ‘eureka’ moments in Ligabue’s creative process, instead most often showing us the finished products. The paintings are impressive, but the film really comes to life when Ligabue is sculpting, and a scene where he has to carry a giant clay lion head into town for a competition is brilliantly funny and surreal.
Ligabue’s work is occasionally compared by other characters to that of Van Gogh, and it feels a fitting equivalence, with Hidden Away bearing more than a passing resemblance to Julian Schnabel’s Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate. Low, hyper-mobile cameras lend a feeling of modern immediacy to the history in which Hidden Away is set, and the howling anger of Germano’s Ligabue is frequently reminiscent of the way Willem Dafoe played Van Gogh.
Unfortunately, though – and again much like At Eternity’s Gate – these stylistic choices don’t always serve the story very well. Some scenes seem to drag on and on without a sense of direction, trying to find a Malick-ian beauty in the mundanities of Ligabue’s life but unable to access the depth of feeling that requires. Hidden Away really drags as it approaches its ending, introducing a romantic subplot that goes nowhere and makes you feel nothing. A scattershot approach to a Ligabue biopic makes sense, getting you into the slightly manic headspace of the man, but the script is too thin for this technique to fully pay off. Thanks to Germano’s performance, though, and plenty of gorgeous, enrapturing shots of Italy’s rural landscapes, Diritti just about keeps things steady for a punchy but patchy portrait of a painter.