Testament to a master Deft film explores Van Gogh's visions

The temptation to become maudlin when approaching the life of Vincent van Gogh has generally proved irresistible. Ever since Irving Stone's novel ''Lust for Life,'' the painter has been everybody's favorite suffering primitive, misunderstood by a superficial world. Actually, it is this very stereotype that perpetrates a superficial hoax about the life and work of this complicated, gifted man.

Van Gogh was, after all, a particularly thoughtful craftsman, one whose technical prowess confounds many a student of painting; and all the blather about a runaway temperament has obscured serious scholarship about his art. So a flash of hope comes when ''Van Gogh at Arles - In a Brilliant Light'' (PBS, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 10-11 p.m. - check local listings) promises to ''look deeply into the paintings themselves'' and keep out of soap opera.

That hope is more than fulfilled by this careful, engrossing documentary, which centers on the 15 months of work that Van Gogh accomplished at Arles, although it touches on events before and after this period. The film is tied to the critically acclaimed exhibition of works from this period presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The narrative here keeps events in Van Gogh's life in the constant perspective of his painting and drawing, which is, after all, how he chose to speak about himself and the world he saw around him.

The film cuts between the places Van Gogh painted and the paintings themselves. At times, there are too few canvases and too many attempts to create a filmic ambiance; but as the thing progresses, we get deeper and deeper into the paintings.

The painter himself declared that his art was ''to exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague.'' And that, for the most part, is what this film is after.

It is helpful to know that his father, a pastor with only 20 congregants, worried that Van Gogh would spoil whatever he undertook ''with his eccentricity.'' So is it important to see his confrontation with Paris and the explosion of color among the Impressionists there, as well as his acquaintance with Japanese prints (he had a collection of more than 100). Similarly, his fateful association with Gaugin provides essential background.

The spare narration, read by Edward Hermann, draws on solid art scholarship, as well as quotations from the artist's letters to the ever-faithful Theo, his brother, confidant, and sole supporter. These comments illuminate the work. ''What Dickens does in words, I do with paint,'' the artist says of his painting ''The Potato Eaters.'' There are times in Arles when he is overcome by ''a terrible lucidity,'' periods when ''nature is so beautiful.'' Of his famous ''The Night Cafe'' he says, ''I've tried to show that the cafe is a place where you can ruin yourself, go crazy, commit crimes. So I stayed up three nights in a row painting and slept during the day.'' It was, he says, ''one of the ugliest paintings I've made.''

As the camera dwells lovingly on the brushwork - roaming from a corner full of burning yellow-green light to small knots of paint tangled into a sleeping form - we see that it is, in fact, one of the most beautiful.

This practice of letting the camera slowly discover major paintings - from the inside, as it were - is the most winning aspect of ''Van Gogh at Arles.'' Earlier, a similar journey through his first big landscape (one that ''kills all the rest'') shows Van Gogh, the painter of space and visions. So, also, do we wander around the artist's famous painting of his own room, with its massive stillness and iconographic personal belongings. Wisely, the narrator falls silent at times, letting the canvases speak for themselves. The sun, the wooden handle of a chair, the smooth tables and rough peasant skin. Those images that always make you want to touch them come closer here than most museums will allow you to get to them.

Meanwhile, the biographical details and intercuts with contemporary settings are helpful. The hands and faces of Arles have not changed that much. Neither, of course, has the landscape.

What has changed is the most essential element of all: Vincent himself is no longer there. But his self-portraits are. And we move in time through this series of studies, as remarkable as any since Rembrandt, done by an artist exploring his own character. One, in the Japanese style, gives the suggestion of slanted eyes - a purposeful effect, the artist tells us. Later portraits tell the tale of the suffering and anguish that came from his epileptic attacks and his inability to keep his life together. Through it all, however, the paintings show, and the narrative reminds us, that Van Gogh never lost his powers, as he feared he would.

It is to these undiminished powers that this film bears an eloquent testament.

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