A documentary by Don Millar. In English, Spanish, Italian and French, with English subtitles. Rated PG
The response to art is always subjective, no less so when it is presented in documentary film. In the case of Botero, about the wildly successful painter, the context is the most subjective thing of all.
While touted as the best-selling artist alive—several times within this film—Colombian-born Fernando Botero has never garnered the critical success of, say, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, or David Hockney. His rounded, almost cartoonish forms, executed with impressive technique, are certainly more accessible than works by trickster conceptualists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. But what’s most distinctive about Botero’s “brand” is that he bottled up his signature style—either mocking or lauding old masters by flattening out familiar images and adding playful colours—early on, and has stuck with it for roughly seven decades.
Now almost 88, and a genial if somewhat remote figure, Botero holds centre stage in this hagiographic effort, directed by Canadian Don Millar. A longtime family friend, Millar makes his feature-doc debut with more-than-eager participation from the painter’s loquacious daughter, Lina, as well as several sons and grandchildren. They all attest sincerely to the patriarch’s unerring vision and exploratory nature—although what really comes across is his stamina and a convincing kind of stubbornness. (Their mothers have no presence whatsoever in the story.)
Only one participant, a university art professor, is allowed to dismiss Botero’s highly illustrational style for its dependence on “Pillsbury Doughboy” characters. And she is quickly drowned out by familial huzzahs that are as resolute as the obstinate piano-plunking that dominates the soundtrack.
That’s a shame, because the 82-minute effort otherwise makes a pretty good case for taking the artist more seriously. For one thing, his political art—most notably taking on the U.S. torture factory at Abu Ghraib—gets a necessary airing here. Another factor is the time it spends with his genuinely impressive giant sculptures, which take the “volumetric” approach to his blimpy figures to their logical ends.
A third plus is the art (especially by other big names) he has collected and donated to museums. What comes across is a talented, somewhat self-satisfied artist who has tended to his own career, and family, which makes for a striking contrast with the usual trajectory of burned-out geniuses. But how good is his art, you ask? How the hell should I know?