Dexter Fletcher in Caravaggio (1986)


(director/writer: Derek Jarman; screenwriter: from an original idea by Nicholas Ward Jackson; cinematographer: Gabriel Beristain; editor: George Akers; cast: Nigel Terry (Caravaggio), Sean Bean (Rannuccio Thomasoni), Tilda Swinton (Lena), Nigel Davenport (Marchese Giustiniani), Michael Gough (Cardinal Del Monte), Robbie Coltrane (Scipione Borghese), Jack Birkett (Pope); Runtime: 93; British Film Institute; 1986-UK)

“It is very sensually done, emphasizing the artist’s gargantuan appetites for bisexual and, especially, homosexual affairs with his models.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An iconoclastic biopic about the adventurous 17th century late-Renaissance painter Michelangelo Merisa da Caravaggio, who was born in 1573 and died in 1610. The Baroque artist is superbly played by Nigel Terry and the story is brilliantly adapted to the screen by English director Derek Jarman. It is very sensually done, emphasizing the artist’s gargantuan appetites for bisexual and, especially, homosexual affairs with his models, the various scandals he was involved in—including murder and his tricky dealings with the church. Also included are the modern street sounds as background. It was filmed on a very restricted budget which only proves if you know how to shoot a film, you can do it on shoestring budget and still come up with an outstanding film.

Derek Jarman’s brief film career (this was his major film debut) came to an unfortunate end in 1994, when he died of AIDS. His original way of shooting a biopic (highly personal but still factual), whereby Caravaggio’s most famous works are recreated with actors who are filmed in a style true to Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro paintings (the artist’s gift to the art world), makes for a one of a kind film. Jarman creates an inspiring visual atmosphere for Nigel Terry’s brooding artist portrayal, of the artist on his death bed. We learn about him through his voice-over and the disjointed time frame of his flashbacks, that tells of his short life which comes back to him in spurts of energy and in a hauntingly disquieting manner. This art-house film, a classic in gay cinema reaching out to a mainstream audience, the director’s most accessible film was winner of the Silver Bear at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival.

The film opens with Caravaggio bemoaning his fate on his death bed at Porto Ercole and his mind drifting in and out with memories of the 40 years he was always on the run, by making the declarative statement that “Man’s character is his fate.” My favorite quote of his, “Through doubt comes insight,” has a ring of inspiration for what egged him on to lead an unconventional life. In the flashbacks we see that from his very youthful beginnings as a struggling artist, his passions were always ripe and his lively sexual encounters were partial to the homoerotic ones. His artistic talents were exploited by the Cardinal, which led to their strange relationship and for him to be made the genius painter for the church, painting their holy figures and saints…with the prostitutes, thieves, gay men and those from the lower classes he used as models. To add further references to his vile character, he kept a deaf/mute child as a slave and lived in such a lavish style that he squandered all his money.

That this film should make us concerned about this intemperate artist, which is not an easy task to do, is accomplished despite telling us as little about him as possible; but, by letting us instead examine him and his paintings in exacting detail by using close-ups and by making his death watch a solemn scene befitting a giant of a man passing before mere mortals. The bare room Caravaggio lies in, the kissing scenes of his models with gold coins in their mouth and his death scene of gold coins covering his eyes (like a Mafia chief being buried), plus the contrasts between dark and light shades in the film aping his art style, the depiction of the struggles he had over money, his wanton confessions, and the wanton life of his models and the corruption of the church, all kept the pot boiling on his mysterious life.

Caravaggio’s most important relationship shown, was with the muscular Ranuccio Thomasoni who first boxed with him and then posed as the assassin in his ‘martyrdom’ oils. The other embroiling relationship was with Lena, Ranuccio’s mistress and the artist’s exotic model for Magdalene and the Virgin, whose pregnancy becomes a tragic moment for her. They formed a ménage à trois and that bawdy relationship becomes the heart of the film.

The film captures the turbulent nature of the artist, accurately showing his inventive art technique (the basis for current movie lighting techniques), and it relates how the artist of a low birth still had so much anger in him even as he grew in status and how he always painted in such a feverish pitch. Caravaggio was always the passionate artist. The film also lets us see how he can so easily kill someone he loved because he believed he was doing something that was just. As a result this is a dark but imaginative look at the artist, one that has weight to it and which should be more pleasing to art lovers than the general public.


REVIEWED ON 12/11/2000 GRADE: B+