The importance of criticism in relation to the arts is given a satirical twist in Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy. James Figueras (Claes Bang) has made quite a name for himself as an art critic, when not writing books on “The Power of Criticism” he is teaching classes on the subject. Believing that critics are vital for shaping the interpretation of a specific work, his own faulty moral compass frequently betrays his professional desire to separate truth from lies.
Figueras’ virtues are put to the test when he meets the mysterious Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) mere days before being invited to the Italian cottage of famed art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger). Bringing Hollis along for the getaway, Figueras is soon faced with an offer he simply cannot refuse, the opportunity to interview famously reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Donald Suthurland). Having not given an interview in 50 years, scoring an interview the reclusive artist would do wonders for Figueras’ career.
In order to even get access to Debney, Figueras must adhere to Cassidy’s one unshakeable condition: he must acquire one of the artist’s rare paintings by any means necessary. This is assuming of course that Debney will even let him near his studio. While Figueras sees Debney as an important means to an end, Hollis begins to see another side to the artist. One that few in the self-indulgent art world have ever dared to look for.
The Burnt Orange Heresy gleefully takes many swipes at the pretentious nature of art culture. Capotondi is specifically concerned with the “everybody thinks they are an expert” type of criticism that has infected all aspects of art. The way people frequently speak about an artist’s work as if they have inner insight into the artist’s intentions or decisions. As Hollis states to Figueras at one point in their playful banter “you treat serious things as trivial, and trivial things as serious.”
While Capotondi has plenty to say about the misguided nature of criticism and the false sense of importance that is often bestowed on those who deliver it, his film gets tangled in the intricate web it tries to construct. The Burnt Orange Heresy begins as an intriguing character study about choices and regret, most notably excelling when focusing on Hollis and Debney’s interactions; however, it devolves into a rather lackluster thriller. Since Figueras and Cassidy are driven by greed and ambition the stakes associated with their actions never feel as palpable as it should. The deeper Figueras spirals the more ridiculous the film becomes.
Furthermore, unlike either Hollis or the richly drawn Debney, Capotondi does not give Figueras enough dimension to sell the inner torment he is supposedly saddled with. One watches, void of emotion, as his ego leads him to fumble from one bad decision to the next. The Burnt Orange Heresy is so consumed with skewing the world of art that it gets lost in its own artistic ambitions.