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Hidden Away

Biopic of Antonio Ligabue, one of the greatest Naive artists of the 20th century, is aesthetically accomplished yet a little soporific - live from the Berlinale


Toni is disabled and has learning difficulties. He isn’t the picture of beauty, either. The balding man has a hunchback and a protruding Adam’s apple. His large moustache is often smeared with drink and food leftovers. He has regular spams and tantrums: he rolls across the floor hollering in despair. He is played by 39-year-old Italian heartthrob Elio Germano, with excellent make-up and impressive dramatic skills. Toni is the epitome of the troubled human being. He also happens to be a very talented and influential painter, who became of the biggest exponents of Naive art.

The story begins in the turn of the century, as Toni’s birth parents entrusted him to a couple in Switzerland. In his early teens, he was hospitalised in a psychiatric clinic following an altercation with his foster mother. Such institutions would became an integral part of his life. An increasingly dysfunctional Toni was eventually deported to Italy. He moved to the hamlet of Gualtieri, in the province of Reggio Emilia, where his father lived. That’s where he would spent most of his life. Hidden Away zigzags back and forth in time in an attempt to recreate the painter’s early life, and to pierce together his pains and afflictions.

Toni began painting as a venting outlet for his many frustrations. At first, people laughed at his works, which infuriated the young artist. He was accused of doing “nothing to support the fascist regime”, which ruled Italy at the time. He often destroyed his own work in sudden fits of rage. He was hospitalised due to self-mutilation, but returned to painting after being assisted by sculptor Andrea Mozzali.

In the late 1940s, he began painting more intensely. Journalists, critics and art dealers became interested in his work. He was recognised throughout the nation and also internationally. He was told there are avid buyers even in the US. He became rich, and quickly splashed his money in cars and motorbikes, two of his real passions. He was also in love with his muse Cesarina, a local maid, but she was advised by her boss to refuse his advances. He attempted to impress her with his alleged fortune, only to be reminded that he’s unable to control his finances. Despite his commercial success, Toni’s mental condition remained unstable. Unable to feed himself, he returned to a psychiatric institution.

Hidden Away is a technically accomplished movie with astounding visuals and a broad colour palette. It does justice to its central topic of painting. The Italian director Giordio Diritti – who is also from Reggio Emilia – and his cinematographer Matteo Cocco are particularly skilled with sunlight, capturing the various tones of the quaint Italian hamlet at different times of the day. Often the frames resemble a quiet and sombre painting. Not quite the plush and vivid colours for which Ligabue became recognised, if still very impressive.

The narrative, however, isn’t as colourful. Despite Germano’s strong performance, the movie is just too long and slow, at nearly two hours. The script lacks vim an enthusiasm. The languid pace might appeal to his fans and art lovers. However, I doubt that it will enrapture the broader public, and reach UK cinemas. I’m not alone in my reservations towards the movie: there were numerous walkouts throughout the entire press screening.

Hidden Away just premiered at the 70th Berlinale, and it’s showing in Competition.

By Victor Fraga - 21-02-2020

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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