The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan incites controversy, and the new documentary about the artist’s life and work, from director Maura Axelrod, wishes to make this immediately clear. Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back opens with quick displays of some of the artist’s oeuvre, syncopated with voices that vacillate adoration and disdain.
Despite this, the film’s own opinion of Cattelan is never really in doubt. Its shiny-eyed presentations of both the art and artist have an unwavering, positive tone to them. Although documentarian in its approach, Be Right Back functions largely as a showcase of the artist and his story, from the humble origins of a tiny house in Padua, to an exhibition at the Guggenheim and art-world notoriety.
Often, Be Right Back’s knees buckle under the weight of its own need to be overtly stylized. Although its independent pieces are compelling, they are mashed together by an unsteady hand, one which does not trust its audience to pay attention for very long.
The film’s first ten minutes cover so much ground so quickly, with an overabundance of self-consciously snazzy music cues, supplementary animations, and interview subjects stuffed into cluttered environments, that it is difficult for a viewer to anchor themselves to any of the information thrown through the screen. The editing and visual aesthetic are so pristine, so precise that Be Right Back almost feels more like a pastiche of hip documentary shows like Chef’s Table than a serious survey. It presumes to document an important artist but does not possess the attention span to say much of anything meaningful about his work.
In a way, though, the scattershot nature of the documentary runs parallel to the irreverent style of Cattelan’s art. The key difference is that Cattelan, love him or hate him, clearly has some good fun with his work, lampooning subjects as diverse as the Pope and Adolph Hitler in his sculptures, while robbing other artists’ galleries, filing false police reports, and posting Torno Subito—“be right back”—on his own gallery door and calling it an exhibit. And it’s hard to argue that setting a baby carriage aflame on a public sidewalk isn’t, at the very least, just begging someone to call it controversial.
Be Right Back doesn’t appear to revel in itself quite the same way. Rather, it takes itself a little too seriously, holding its viewers at the length of its over-stylized arms, and so becomes something of a snooze. If one is interested in the work of the artist, they are probably better off seeking it out themselves and drawing their own conclusions than attempting to find anything elucidating here.