The legendary painter Michaelangelo da Caravaggio was renowned for the use of theatrical light, chiaroscuro, and for painting saints with the grubby faces and dirty hands of peasants. So it's no surprise that the legendary British filmmaker Derek Jarman memorialized him not in a traditional costume drama but in an historical fantasy film filled with anachronistic objects and dreamlike imagery that bars the viewer from ever believing in Caravaggio as a biography of a 16th century artist. Visually striking and emotionally wrenching, Caravaggio takes liberties with history and plays games with the interpretation of art, making Jarman's movie as difficult to interpret as the work of his titular character.
Told in flashbacks from the artist's deathbed, Caravaggio finds the painter in exile after having committed a crime that forced him to leave his home. He recalls his youth selling his paintings and himself on the streets before being discovered in Rome by a Cardinal, who hoped to encourage the boy to paint saints while indulging his private sins. Prominent statesmen and Catholic officials recognize Caravaggio's genius, though his work is often controversial; he paints himself as a debauched young god, and employs whores and street fighters to pose for his saints.
While looking for a model for John the Baptist, Caravaggio meets Ranuccio, a laborer and fighter who is only too willing to sell himself for gold coins. Michele (as Caravaggio is called) quickly becomes infatuated with the beautiful young man, and Ranuccio responds to him enough to arouse the envy of his lover, Lena, though the Ranuccio insists that he's only in love with Michele's money. The three have a strange, twisted erotic relationship in which Michele flirts with Lena to make Ranuccio jealous but ends up becoming fond of her, taking pleasure in dressing her up and passing her off as an aristocrat. A violent and tragic chain of events is set in motion when Lena, pregnant with Ranuccio's child, abandons him for the wealthy Scipione Borghese.
The film deliberately draws attention to the ways in which it is a reconstruction of history, not an attempt to tell a straightforward story. There are motor bikes, trucks and typewriters in this Renaissance, as well as frankness about homosexual desire which certainly existed yet one doubts was spoken of so openly by members of the Renaissance Church. The storytelling is slow and methodical. It includes several long, silent scenes showing Caravaggio at work, drawing attention to the dark backgrounds and striking use of light, as well as a long scene with a gymnast posing for the artist who shows off unnatural body positions and later has a monologue about unnatural sexual acts at aristocratic parties. The theme of "blood brothers" runs through the drama, beginning after a knife fight in which Ranuccio wounds Michele, then kisses him; the two share passion and blood later in an even more disturbing context.
The still-life imagery has strong symbolic implications as well. Caravaggio holds an art show at a party in the catacombs, with rotting skeletons all around and stolen jewelry passed among the major characters to show their shifting loyalties and how wealth defines them. Caravaggio's entire relationship with Ranuccio is defined by money; when he first paints the young man, he gives him gold coins that Ranuccio hides in his mouth until the artist offers a last coin from between his own teeth. Later, Ranuccio and Lena play with the coins during their lovemaking. Everything in Michele's world -- drink, fruit, art, love -- can be bought or sold, while spirituality is largely absent, controlled by corrupt Church leaders who will overlook sins like sodomy to collect art that will make them powerful and celebrated.
Caravaggio's art is not discussed in the film except in terms of its biographical importance -- none of the characters note the colors, the lighting or any of the other elements for which the artist is best known. Yet there are fascinating suppositions offered via the use of characters in the canvases. After Ranuccio poses as John the Baptist, Caravaggio comes home to find his mute assistant sitting in Ranuccio's place, holding his props, evidently envious of the young model's place in the painter's affections as well as his artwork. Lena can be chillingly pragmatic -- she has no problem with her lover selling his body for art or sex, though she resents him when she fears that Ranuccio may actually love Caravaggio -- yet when she takes her hair down to pose as Magdalen, she reveals a soft, ethereal beauty that's quite invisible when she's a tough peasant and later a taut would-be-aristocrat.
The movie's scenarios create narratives around traditional canvases, including the disturbing use of a dead body for a classic painting. It's hard at times to guess when the film is making a statement about the life of Caravaggio versus when it's focused more on the experiences of Derek Jarman; many of the themes, like homoerotic desire and challenges to the social order, recur in his other works, and indeed the superlative principal actors (Nigel Terry as Caravaggio, Sean Bean as Ranuccio and Tilda Swinton as Lena) all appear in other films by the director. The somber mood of an era of corruption and violence, when love offers some hope of redemption but also the possibility of devastation and despair, comes through very strongly, despite the interjection of twisted humor via a sadistic critic typing in a bathtub and a wealthy patron who uses a pocket calculator to determine values.
Given Michaelangelo da Caravaggio's renown for using a consistent light source, which permitted natural illumination of his subjects, it's ironic that the characters in this film about him remain impossible to see clearly. This is a deliberately elusive glimpse of a history that belongs as much to a filmmaker as a painter, and to the objects of the artists' gaze as much as the subjects.
[Michelle Erica Green]