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June 11, 2017



written by: Pappi Corsicato
produced by: Pappi Corsicato, Valeria Golino, Viola Prestieri & Riccardo Scamarcio
directed by: Pappi Corsicato
rated: unrated
runtime: 84 min.
U.S. release date: April 28, 2017 (Tribeca Film Festival), May 5, 2017 (limited) & June 2-8, 2017 (Gene Siskel Film Center)


“Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait” is a documentary that delivers on its promise. It is indeed about one of the most versatile American artists living today, but unlike other films that focus on notable figures of the past and present, director Pappi Corsicato doesn’t just offer a career overview, mainly because the 65-year-old Schnabel is very much alive, embracing life and constantly creating. It’s a film that not only renewed my appreciation for the painter/filmmaker/writer/musician/etc, it also reminded me how invigorating the creative process can be – which is helpful, since I’m always focused on how frustrating it is – as it focuses on this larger-than-life persona, yet is intent on simply hanging out with its subject and those close to him, who know him best. 

This isn’t a documentary that follows a typical biographical formula. Sure, we learn of the Brooklyn-born artist’s past and how for many of his teen years he lived in Brownsville, Texas, where his father transplanted his family, but the difference here is we learn about Schnabel mostly from Schnabel himself. The overall tone turns out to be a breezy and inviting affair, open to anyone. It’s for those, like me, who have a vague recollection of Schnabel’s painting from Art History class in college or  who only know him for his amazing work as a award-winning self-taught filmmaker (“Basquiat”, “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” are touched upon here, while “Miral” is completely ignored), but “A Private Portrait” is also for those well-versed in all things Julian Schnabel and for those who just know him by name. It’s an invitation to hang out with an artist, understand him better and learn more about his process and approach to the arts and life.




The film opens with Schnabel at a villa on one of the Li Galli islands off the Amalfi coast in Italy, hanging out in a swimming pool with a blonde toddler we can assume is his grandchild. He gives the child a lift on his broad shoulders as they both head to the sea below. On a natural ledge high above the water, Schnabel takes off his robe unveiling his rotund belly and dives in as the camera following him into the water. In a matter of minutes the vitality of this large man is established, something we’ll see much more of as the film progresses.

Much of the film’s insight comes from the artist himself along with his adult children who admire him for different reasons in their own way and have also been involved in their father’s artistic endeavors or are artists themselves. They share how their childhood was unlike their peers, in that they had a certain set of specific rules that their father enforced, but they got used to it and eventually thought nothing of it. They are now inHis art dealer son Vito had a role in “Before Night Falls” and both Stella and Lola, who also paints, appeared in “Basquiat” when they were children. His sister, Andrea, shares how interested Schnabel became in surfing during his younger years while living in South Texas (something that totally surprised me and I got a kick of), an activity which became a source of peace for him and eventual imagery that he’d incorporate into his paintings later on.

As is the case with many documentaries, Corsicato isn’t really interested in any opposing views on Schnabel other than admiration. I’ve no problem with that – why else make a film about an artist who’s still alive to discuss his life and work without presenting it with a certain amount of adulation? The typical “rise/fall/recover” trajectory that is common in bio-docs is unnecessary here. I’m sure that approach could be given to Schnabel, but it’s a relief that Corsicato doesn’t go there. After all, this is an artist who’s allowing his life to be filmed and followed, so we can assume he has a say – or, at least a knowledge – of the film’s intent. The fact that this isn’t a straight-forward account of Shnabel’s career is actually quite refreshing. Although Corsicato’s touches on Shnabel’s past chronologically, in between capturing the artist’s present day activities, his film is more concerned with capturing the aura of certain impressions from Schabel’s career, than it is touching on all the milestones.




I was particularly amused and curious about how it seems that just about any woman included in this doc (outside of his daughters, of course), in or formally in his life, at one time were one over completely by Schnabel’s magnetic charisma. Outside of his ex-wives gushing over him, we hear from Mary Boone, the New York gallerist who was the first to represent Schnabel in the late 70s/early 80s. Considering what a confident and convincing presence he clearly was, it’s understandable to see why she would partner with him. Seeing footage and photos of the New York gallery scene back then made me long for a documentary just on that era.

“A Private Portrait” serves as a reminder how artistically successful the painter’s first three outings as a filmmaker. I was surprised not to see actors Jeffrey Wright (“Basquiet”) and Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) reflect on their time working with Schnabel as a film director, but maybe Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) had a schedule that was a bit more open. Most intriguing, is to learn how much of  “The Diving Bell” included Schnabel’s personal life. Schnabel can be seen talking about the film with actress Emmanuelle Seigner and we learn how the characters she and Anne Consigny played were based on women in Schnabel’s life. On that note, we also learn that the character Gary Oldman played in “Basquiet” was loosely inspired by Schnabel himself. Learning these anecdotes provides a new appreciation for his film work and makes me want to catch up with “Miral”.

We also hear some actor friends of Shnabel’s, such as Willem Dafoe (who will be working with Schnabel on his next film, the Van Gogh biopic “At Eternity’s Gate”) and Al Pacino, the latter of whom recounts a humorous memory of Schnabel dragging him to a galley opening in New York. It’s cool to see these acting giants just as awestruck for Schnabel as any other appreciator would and it speaks to how influential the artist is. We also hear from musicians Bono and Laurie Anderson, both of whom extol their appreciation for his work and their friendship.

The film is at it’s best though when we’re just watching Schnabel paint. From the clothes that he wears to the apparatus he uses for his brushes, it’s all and interesting process to behold. Corsicato has made an inviting film, allowing viewers to learn and observe who Schnabel is and provide an engaging aspect of him we’re unable to get from his paintings or films.








2 Comments leave one →
  1. sylvieball8 permalink
    October 6, 2017 1:09 pm

    The blonde toddler at the outset is probably his own son, Shooter. Schnabel has no grandchildren.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      October 17, 2017 1:33 pm

      Good to know! Thanks.

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