In 17th century Italy, the life of a female artist wasn't all brunch with Galileo and manicotti with the Medicis. For painter Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of renowned Caravaggist Orazio Gentileschi, it was a never-ending struggle with prejudice, patriarchy, and multiple pregnancies. And let's not forget the eight-month rape trial.
Filmmaker Ellen Weissbrod didn't want to forget any of it, and in 2002 decided to merge Artemisia's scandalous story with her own midlife crisis. As a result, Weissbrod's documentary A Woman Like That became less an account of a long-ago life than a foray into therapy as Artemisia's strength of will forces Weissbrod to question her own.
"I can't let her down," she says at one point in the film, racked with self-doubt over her ability to do justice to Artemisia's defiantly feminist sensibility and perfectly rendered areolae. Mastering her fears and girding her loins — at one point in NYPD-approved surveillance gear — Weissbrod pieces together a lighthearted commentary on art and gender as relevant today as it would have been four centuries ago.
Dividing her screen into multiple frames and her thesis among a lively group of female artists and fans (who cheerfully grab daggers to reenact scenes from Artemisia's paintings), Weissbrod injects modern life into pre-Baroque art. The effect is odd and often chaotic, but beneath the busyness the whiff of male condescension — and the female strategies for dealing with it — remains easily detectable.
Following a release strategy as unconventional as its style, A Woman Like That will screen primarily at universities and museums, including on Saturday, March 5th, at 1:00 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art. Weissbrod will be there, and so might I — if only to ask for the name of the librarian who let her fondle 400-year-old archives without wearing gloves. If I had my way, she'd be banned from the stacks for life.