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Thursday, September 27, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Film's An Artful Portrait Of Painter Diego Rivera

XXX ``Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See,'' with the voices of Julio Medina, Rosana De Soto, John Hutton. Directed by Mary Lance, from a script by Eric Breitbart. Tomorrow through Sunday, Neptune. No rating. Suitable for general audiences.

This pithy hour-long documentary about Mexico's most famous painter covers a lot of ground.

Director Mary Lance - crisply outlining Diego Rivera's career, his artistic development, his four marriages (including two to fellow artist Frida Kahlo) and his professional triumphs and debacles - offers an even-handed account of the artist's life, leaving viewers to evaluate Rivera's artwork, politics and sexual habits for themselves.

The attitude of Lance and scriptwriter Eric Breitbart toward their subject is more respectful than adoring. What the movie lacks in passion, it makes up for in artfulness. The narration draws heavily on Rivera and Kahlo's own words about their lives and work (Julio Medina and Rosana De Soto in voice-over). Best of all, there's a generous helping of the couple's home movies and revealing archival footage showing Rivera at work.

In a number of cases the archival footage offers a record of works that no longer exist: Rivera's notorious Rockefeller Center mural, destroyed for its Communist content, and ``A Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace,'' which disappeared somewhere between Mexico and China.

At this late date, Rivera's run-ins with the capitalist powers-that-be come off as more comical than profound. Rivera's response to the destruction of the Rockefeller Center mural was to portray John D. Rockefeller in a subsequent work with large venereal disease germs floating near his head. And ``A Nightmare of War'' features, absurdly, Mao Tse Tung and Stalin offering doves of peace to caricatures of the European powers.

Propaganda purposes aside, the artwork remains fresh, lively and compelling. Lance's cinematographers vividly capture the way Rivera matched visual drama to architectural surroundings, whether in a courtyard, a chapel or an institutional corridor. Brian Keane's score offers subtle accompaniment to this fine film portrait.

``I Paint What I See'' (the title is taken from an E.B. White poem about Rivera's battle with the Rockefellers) is being shown with ``The Life and Death of Frida Kahlo.'' This 1976 documentary played at the Neptune a couple of years ago. See both films and you'll get a full account of the marriages and careers of these two legendary artists.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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