February 1986 (Berlin International Film Festival)) — 93 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.78:1 — Drama
Jarman’s 5th feature, a visually and dramatically intense reimagining of the life of the great sixteenth century artist.

FILMS: Shorts | 1. Sebastiane | 2. Jubilee | 3. Tempest | 4. Angelic Conversation | 5. Caravaggio | 6. Last of England | 7. War Requiem | 8. The Garden | 9. Edward II | 10. Wittgenstein | 11. Blue.


Caravaggio is Jarman’s most ambitious, popular, and acclaimed film. It reimagines the volatile life of the sixteenth-century artist, whose sublime paintings both draw on and transcend the seamy underworld of his time. Jarman — an important painter as well as filmmaker — sees more than a little of himself in his subject, and aspects of modern life in the mean streets of the Renaissance. If you are new to Jarman’s films, Caravaggio makes an ideal introduction, since it’s typical in terms of style and theme, one of his greatest works, and features an engrossing plot.

In more ways than one, Jarman focuses on The Passion of Caravaggio, as the painter — lying on his deathbed, delirious with fever — recalls his life, loves, and obsessions. The main action finds Caravaggio (Nigel Terry — John Boorman’s Excalibur, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy) smack in the middle of a love triangle, after he falls hard for the beautiful bad boy Ranuccio (Sean Bean — GoldenEye, The Lord of the Rings), who in turn can’t get enough of working girl Lena (Tilda Swinton — Orlando, 2008 Oscar for Michael Clayton). Other well-known cast members include Robbie Coltrane (Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, the Harry Potter series), Michael Gough (Losey and Pinter’s The Go-Between, Tim Burton’s Batman), Dexter Fletcher (The Rachel Papers, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), and composer Simon Fisher Turner playing Fra Fillipo. There are many more of Jarman’s frequent collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.

Of course, Jarman’s most illustrious collaborator on this film is Caravaggio. Famous, notorious, and profoundly influential — on such painters as Rubens, Georges de La Tour, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer and countless others, and in cinema on film noir style — let’s take a brief look at the life and work of the man whom Jarman waggishly called “the James Dean of the Renaissance,” before focusing on the film.

Caravaggio – Historical

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was raised in northern Italy, the son of architect/decorator Fermo Merisi and Lucia Aratori. When he was five, they fled Milan, to escape the plague, and resettled 25 miles away, in the small town of Caravaggio (also known locally as Careàs). Orphaned at age 11, Caravaggio became an apprentice to a provincial painter, who trained him in the Lombard style, that stressed naturalism and simplicity. By 1592 he had moved to northern Rome’s bohemian Campo Marzio, known for its taverns, art shops, cheap accommodations, hustlers of every variety, and colorful night life. Rome’s art world was still dominated by Mannerism (1520s–1600), with impossibly elongated objects, flat backgrounds, and unnatural colors. Caravaggio would have seen many works by the Roman master of this style, Pontormo (1494–1557), and might also have learned, through the grapevine, that he was a fellow gay artist, like so many other defining Italian artists, including Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Caravaggio, now in his 20s, employed an evocative but naturalistic look (“The Lute Player”, 1596), sometimes employing himself as model. Under the lavish, and perhaps lascivious, patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, his range increased dramatically and he began painting melodramatic religious subjects in his unique, and sometimes homoerotic, style (“The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”, 1599). By 1600, he was the most famous artist in Rome, with a mass following, but also the most infamous. All of his brawling and sword-fighting landed him in jail several times; ironically, court records provide most of our knowledge about his life. Not even his reputation and illustrious patrons could protect him from a murder charge when, on May 29, 1606 he killed, perhaps accidentally, a youth named Ranuccio Tomassoni over a disputed tennis score! This began the exile of his last four years. Caravaggio fled, in rapid succession, from Rome to Naples, Malta, Sicily, back to Naples, then to his final spot, Porto Ercole (a small beach village in western Italy). In each of these places, he immediately established himself as the reigning artist; the problem was, he just as quickly re-established his reputation for mayhem. The painter who brought the Renaissance fully into the Baroque era died of fever, on July 18, 1610.

What makes a Caravaggio canvas so uniquely powerful? Here is a complete illustrated list of all Caravaggio’s paintings, in chronological order (1593–1610). (Below, in the section Caravaggio in Caravaggio, I identify his paintings that Jarman recreates onscreen.) Following is a whirlwind overview of the artist’s style and influence — Caravaggio has merited entire libraries of analysis — to help increase your enjoyment of Jarman’s brilliant film.

The key technique in Caravaggio’s masterpieces is chiaroscuro (pronounced ‘key are uh SKOO roe’; literally ‘clear–dark’), that uses intense, selective light to illuminate form in contrast to the deep shadows around it. A perfect example of chiaroscuro can be seen in one of Caravaggio’s greatest — and most revealing — works, that also figures prominently in Jarman’s film, “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” (1599). [If you click on the accompanying reproduction of the painting, it will automatically adjust its dimensions to fit your monitor; you can also download it at its full large size: 2,024 × 1,944 pixels — the monumental original is 323 cm × 343 cm, or roughly 140 square feet.]

This painting was arguably the greatest, and most audacious, part of a prestigious commission — that made young Caravaggio Rome’s preeminent artist — to paint three works on the subject of St. Matthew the Evangelist, for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Since Matthew’s death is missing from the Bible, there are various conflicting legends depicting it: in this version, the Ethiopian king sentenced Matthew to death because his religion doubly damned the monarch’s marriage to his niece (incest) since she was already a “bride of Christ” (bigamy).

The technique of chiaroscuro had been around for decades, but Caravaggio gave it radically definitive form — specifically called tenebrism (from the Latin for ‘darkness’) — by intensifying the shadows (as you can see around the periphery in “Martyrdom”) and using a blinding shaft of light to pinpoint the central dramatic element of the executioner and, beneath him, Matthew. Like virtually all of Caravaggio’s works, this one is set at night; and it uses his frequent palette of brown/ochre, dark red/sienna, gold, black, white.

As in his other works, Caravaggio expresses in one vivid scene the many, sometimes contradictory, aspects of a pivotal, often violent, event. But even with its melodramatic intensity, it’s also viscerally realistic, both in terms of how it depicts the human form (earlier Mannerist art distorted bodies for effect) and, perhaps more importantly, the interlocking psychological perspectives of the characters. Although the tradition was well-established, Caravaggio dresses some of these ancient people in anachronistic contemporary fashions, like the rich gentlemen’s doublets and modish feathered caps (so for the people “shocked” by Jarman’s use of anachronism in his film, consider the source). But what horrified Caravaggio’s religious patrons wasn’t so much how the people were dressed, or even biblically undressed, but that these models were off-the-street poor and working class people. Caravaggio even had the audacity to use a real streetwalker to portray the streetwalker Mary Magdalene in “The Repentant Magdalene” (1597); and in “Martyrdom,” you’ll see several young men who may have been rent boys, perhaps even lovers of the artist and his pious patrons.

Self-Portrait from "Martyrdom of St. Matthew"Caravaggio has even painted himself — just behind the executioner — cheek to cheek with a bare-chested lad. (He includes his self-portrait, with the trademark beard, in several canvases, the most ironic being his own face on the decapitated giant, vanquished by the well-toned youth, in 1599’s “David With the Head of Goliath”.) Also, he shocked fellow artists not only by refusing to “idealize” his subjects, as convention demanded, but by his unorthodox work methods. To speed up the process, he etched guide marks right onto the canvas… and if you want to make something out of it with him, come on, step outside… now.

Also notable for such a sacred subject is just how, well, gay Caravaggio makes it. Looking at the painting, without immersing oneself in traditional interpretations, you can’t help but see that this is more than just an — unexpected and untraditional — all-male composition (with the single possible exception of the hysterical androgynous young person, to the right of Matthew; but critics usually refer to the person as a boy). There are four pairs of men, and the three that each include at least one handsome youth (including the one with Caravaggio) feature such close proximity that they could be seen as couples. Note also that they span — and in the Caravaggio coupling shatter — the rigidly segregated social hierarchy, from wealthy to poor (the bare-chested young men in the — literally and perhaps metaphorically — “lower end” of the picture). One aspect of same-sex relationships that has always twisted up traditionalists is how they can cross “God-given” socioeconomic boundaries (but when that’s based primarily on physical attributes, it raises other issues

The more intently you look at this canvas the more profoundly unsettling aspects you may find, beyond the obvious one of an elderly man about to be murdered in cold blood, in public. The assassin, straddling Matthew, could hardly be more homoerotic: semi-nude with taut muscles and a big phallic sword. Why? to please Cardinal Del Monte and other papal, um, art connoisseurs who would understand (wink ‘n’ nudge) why Matthew can’t take his eyes off of him, even as he mechanically reaches up for the traditional ‘palm of martyrdom’ from the cherub… who is also very strange. The little angel is half falling off the rock-like clouds that, surreally, seem the solidest objects in the painting.

The tradition behind this sacred subject demanded that a variety of emotional responses be displayed; and they are… but with a twist. It’s extremely disturbing that with a man about to slaughtered (okay, ‘martyred’) before their eyes, most of these guys seem more interested in their companions, from whom they can barely turn away their gazes. It’s as if they found themselves at a free performance of some ‘snuff play’ (the setting could be either an altar where Matthew was conducting mass as in the legend, or a street as some art historians opine), but it’s really just a diversion — except for the strong emotions conveyed by two parallel characters: the hysterical androgynous young person and, directly across the picture, the 30-something man (past the age of ‘hotness’?) with curly brown hair holding up his hands in horror. Yet, notice how no one is making any attempt to save Matthew. Snuff theatre… with fatal consequences for one gospel author. But — significantly — Caravaggio eschews the universal convention of depicting martyrdoms (a very popular genre) as moments of ecstasy. Instead, Matthew just stares blankly at his virile murderer: heaven may be on his mind, but fatal flesh has caught his eyes.

If the cliché is true and pictures are worth a thousand words, Caravaggio’s — with their intertwined depths of psychology, socio-economics, spirituality, profound ambiguity, and stunning artistic genius — are worth many times that number.

Following this review, in the section Caravaggio in Caravaggio, you will find a list of the paintings recreated in the film. Now, at last, on to Jarman’s searing portrait of the artist.

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Caravaggio – Jarman’s Film

Jarman revered Caravaggio not only as one of the world’s greatest painters but as a fellow revolutionary queer artist whose works moved effortlessly from the subversive to the sublime (as we’ve seen above in “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew”). His most extreme partisans might argue that Jarman — as world-class painter, stage and cinema designer, screenwriter, filmmaker, poet, author, and one who raised gardening to the level of an art form — is, by definition, more of a “renaissance man” than Caravaggio. Be that as it may, Jarman knew what Caravaggio meant by the defiant motto engraved on his dagger — that also served as the film’s original title: “No Hope, No Fear” (Nec Spe, Nec Metu).

It took Jarman eight long frustrating years before he could finally bring Caravaggio to the screen — that’s half of his life as filmmaker, and almost as long as Caravaggio’s entire professional career. Art dealer Nicholas Ward-Jackson brought him the basic idea in 1978 — suggesting the works of Genet and Pasolini as models — but Jarman immediately made the project his own in every way, from initial design sketches to tentative casting choices to the screenplay. Jarman went through a staggering eighteen drafts of the script (one in collaboration with actor Julian Sands, A Room With a View), that were often keyed to the gyrating budget — lavish to minuscule to modest — partly determined by the production companies’ rocky relationships with the gay-unfriendly Conservative regime in power, that all but stopped “controversial” public film financing.

The financial saga has as many twists and turns as the film’s labyrinthine plot. When Jarman shows the dead Caravaggio with gold coins over his eyes, it’s as much an ironic jab at economic/political realities as the folk tradition of making sure the dead have the proper fare to enter the land of the dead. But in the opening shot, before the coins appear, Jarman emblematically lays out Caravaggio’s contradictions in a stunning close-up: one of the dead artist’s eyes is wide open, but the other is shut.

While Jarman cast Nigel Terry for his talent — and he gives a career-making performance in the title role — he also bears an uncanny resemblance to the historical Caravaggio, as he painted himself in several works and as depicted in Ottavio Leoni’s 1621 painting, the only documented portrait by another artist. This boded well for the entire production, that on September 2, 1985 at long, long last began to film.

Caravaggio was shot entirely at Limehouse Studios, in the central London dockyards on the Thames River. Through Jarman and the designers’ brilliant imaginations, the small sound stages (of the erstwhile warehouse), encompassed all of Caravaggio’s world, from the riotous Campo Marzio neighborhood where the painter lived and brawled, to elegant papal chambers, to the seaside cottage where he died. Production wrapped — with the riveting final scene between Caravaggio and Ranuccio — on October 11. The film came in on time and on budget (that The New York Times reported as US $475,000 — a tiny percentage of even a low-budget Hollywood movie). Every account attests to Jarman’s success in making this a very happy shoot for the entire cast and crew. Tilda Swinton, the actor most closely associated with Jarman — and one of the great actors of our time — had a wonderful comment in her video interview on the Wittgenstein DVD. She said that she felt like she and Derek and others in his merry band had had an exhilarating, far-ranging conversation, begun on Caravaggio, that continued for the rest of their lives, and “Every year we would think of a way of expressing [through Jarman’s newest film] what we all had been discussing.” At the time of this picture, many in the cast and crew were in their 20s, just starting out in major films. This was the first feature for actress Tilda Swinton, and crew members Sandy Powell, Michael Buchanan, and Simon Fisher-Turner.

Highlights of the cast’s other credits are at the top of this review; among the crew, we have producer Sarah Radclyffe (My Beautiful Laundrette, and co-founder of Working Title Productions, that has done Fargo and most of the other Coen Brothers films, Billy Elliot, Atonement, not to mention the shockingly wonderful zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead); production designer Christopher Hobbs (Ken Russell’s Gothic, Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, mini-series Gormenghast); art director Michael Buchanan (The Krays, Orlando); cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, Guillermo del Toro’s underrated Blade II, Hideo Nakata’s 2005 The Ring Two); costume designer Sandy Powell (Orlando, Shakespeare in Love, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and The Aviator); composer Simon Fisher-Turner (Michael Almereyda’s Nadja, Mike Hodges’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead); and editor George Akers (Second Best, Christopher Hampton’s Carrington).

In November 1985, the month following production, Jarman, Swinton, Spencer Leigh, and the dubbing editor flew to Italy to record authentic sounds, from traffic noise, to a tempest at Porto Ercole, to a Frescobaldi toccata played on the Baroque composer’s own organ. Back in England, Jarman asked Simon Fisher Turner if he would compose the score — his first of several for Jarman — that would eclectically blend the newly-recorded sounds with both circa 1600 period music, and Fisher Turner’s original compositions.

Tony Peake, in his indispensable Derek Jarman: A Biography (1999), expresses an interesting point of view that I don’t share, namely, that “for all its many fine and subtle qualities, Caravaggio exudes a whiff of staleness, even flatness,” that he attributes to Jarman’s many years in pre-production, making him “somehow exhausted by the film before the camera started rolling.” Peake reports that the film garnered only tepid critical praise, yet at the Berlin International Film Festival, Jarman won both the C.I.D.A.L.C. Award and Silver Berlin Bear; and at the Istanbul International Film Festival, he won the Special Jury Prize. The film was successful in international markets, and in the two decades since, it has grown not only in critical stature but popularity — and that will only increase now that it’s finally available on DVD.

While Caravaggio is a landmark in several ways (more on that below), there is an entire sub-genre of biopics devoted to visual artists’ lives, from clunky Oscar-bait like Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965 — a ‘straightened’ Michelangelo, and a qualitative far cry from the director’s The Third Man) to such notable examples as Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt (1936), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Five Women Around Utamaro (1946), John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1953 — Toulouse-Lautrec), Vincente Minnelli and the uncredited George Cukor’s Lust For Life (1956 — Van Gogh), Ken Russell‘s Savage Messiah (1972 — sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; sets designed by Jarman: although Russell is a key influence, Jarman eschews the hallucinatory irony of, say, Mahler), Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990 — also Van Gogh), Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), and Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002 — Kahlo). Arguably the greatest biographical film about an artist is Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic about the 14th century icon painter, Andrei Rublev (1966).

More revealing of Caravaggio’s cinematic genesis than those titles are the films that Jarman had screened before he began production: Dreyer’s, and cinema’s, consummate masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (composed in infinitely nuanced close shots — as Jarman’s Caravaggio notes, “Man’s character is in his face”), and key Italian Neo-Realist films like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Rossellini’s Rome: Open City, and perhaps most influentially, not least for its film noir-ish plot, Visconti’s Ossessione (the unauthorized, and best, version of The Postman Always Rings Twice). Jarman also watched films centered around tableaux vivants (with a silent, motionless group of people arranged to represent a scene, as from a famous painting), including Godard‘s radical 1982 masterpiece Passion, in which a hapless filmmaker spends endless time, and money, reproducing great paintings, even though he has no plot for the movie he’s shooting (by comparison, think how lucky Jarman’s producers were). Jarman already knew Pasolini’s fabulous comic short, “La Ricotta”, that includes satirical slapstick with Orson Welles, as an unnamed director, shooting a tableau vivant of Pontormo’s 1528 “The Deposition from the Cross.’

Now that we’ve brought Caravaggio’s background out of the shadows, let’s shine a light on the film itself, beginning with its narrative structure.

The key line in the film comes when Caravaggio, after Ranuccio has stabbed him in a fight, tells his faithful mute servant Jerusaleme: “All art is against lived experience. How can you compare flesh and blood with oil, ground pigment?”

Of course, Caravaggio is really speaking to himself, just as Jarman is speaking to us. But this is the theme — art versus life, life versus art — that binds together, even as it tears apart, every aspect of this richly-layered film. What makes this line effective, despite its almost Brechtian directness, is that, besides the raw idea, it’s a deeply-felt expression of Caravaggio’s doubts about himself, and about the limitations of his artistic passion. (As a subtly witty touch, that underscores the psychological dynamic, Jarman visually bases the scene on Caravaggio’s “Doubting Thomas” — although, hygienically, Jerusaleme does not stick his finger in his master’s wound.) We can connect with the man, whom we’ve now gotten to know through the first half of the film, and his vulnerability. Nigel Terry’s masterful performance is the final successful element, uniting character and thought, and viscerally connecting with us in the audience. How many actors can make modern dramatic poetry — the dialogue is in unrhymed verse — sound and feel so natural?

Jarman embodies the struggle between life and art directly in the narrative form. The exiled Caravaggio, dying from fever, recalls his entire life in a series of flashbacks that are somewhat jumbled yet always emotionally understandable. Intuitively, we feel that this structure makes sense, because it’s coming from a man, despite his delirium (“life versus…”), trying to make final sense (“…art”) of his 39 years.

Looking at the structure in broad strokes, it begins with Caravaggio as a sassy youth (played by Dexter Fletcher), who charges for everything he sells, whether it’s his paintings, his body or, for the powerful but soft-spoken patron Cardinal Del Monte, both. The majority of the film centers — in basically linear fashion — on the painter’s tempestuous relationship with the ruggedly sensual and amoral Ranuccio and his ambitious girlfriend Lena (who skyrockets from streetwalker to regal kept woman).

We come full circle at the end, with a revealing flashback to Caravaggio as a boy (in an angel costume), together with his beloved Pasqualone, that suggests that he may have found his artistic calling through a fascination with Jesus’s Passion. Jarman then brilliantly cuts through the next two decades of the artist’s life to show his monumental version of “The Deposition of Christ” — in which he’s paints himself as Jesus. As that scene suggests, the film draws parallels, some obvious and some subtle, between the painter and Jesus — although Jarman directly recreates only that one of Caravaggio’s several paintings with Jesus. With “Doubting Thomas,” mentioned above, Jarman only suggests Jesus by the costume and composition; but you’ll notice that Caravaggio’s knife wound is in the same spot, on his ribs, as in the painting — like the one Jesus on the cross received from a guard’s spear (as depicted in countless paintings over the centuries, including many that show the blood pouring into the Holy Grail).

For all the charges of “blasphemy” leveled against Caravaggio, in using actual ‘poor people,’ prostitutes and hustlers as models for biblical subjects, those were the very outcasts that Jesus consorted with, and that both Caravaggio and Jarman could relate to intimately. Although both Jesus and Caravaggio die in excruciating pain, attended by their faithful followers, the latter is no martyr, except perhaps in his obsession to unite art and life. But the film questions Caravaggio’s chaotic vision of life, even as it exalts his artistic genius.

Caravaggio’s delirious (re)vision of his life, as he is about to leave it, recalls Nikos Kazantzakis’s well-known 1951 novel (and Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film version), The Last Temptation of Christ, although Jarman employs no twist ending. More subtly, Caravaggio’s doubts and fears that pervade the entire film — in voice over he whispers, “Thought without image. Lost in the pigment. Trapped in the formless umber wastes.” — recall Jesus’s anxiety in Gethsemane, before his arrest and execution, as described in the gospel of Mathew, beginning at 26:36.

There’s an even deeper mythic level, as in other Jarman films like The Angelic Conversation: primal ritual, in which a protagonist achieves incremental understanding through a long process of doubt and suffering. This ancient form underlies the narrative, giving the film a subliminal resonance.

More overtly, Jarman uses Roman Catholic imagery at many points — but there’s always an edge. The film contains countless depictions of this Vatican-centered world, but Jarman — even more openly than Caravaggio — reveals the common, and often base, humanity beneath the holy regalia. When Caravaggio has his audience with the gnarly Pope Paul V (whose portrait he would paint in 1605: the ultimate “Establishment” art assignment), that’s Jarman playing a cardinal in the background — but notice how he’s waving his hands about meaninglessly and ironically. On his deathbed, when a boyish monk tries to force a crucifix into Caravaggio’s hands, he uses his last strength to hurl it away. Of course, such correspondences — employing both Jesus and religious traditions — annoy some viewers, both faith-based and secular. But Jarman uses them to add, if you’ll allow a painterly metaphor, yet another hue or two to his much more comprehensive palette of allusions, narrative form, sound and visual imagery.

The narrative’s flip side — or is it?, Jarman might ask — to the religious layer is, unexpectedly, film noir. Admittedly, this is an unorthodox take on Caravaggio, but know that Jarman discussed noir directly with cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (as recounted in the latter’s video interview on the DVD), suggesting that Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro helped invent noir style, with its (melo)dramatic, selective lighting and shadowy backgrounds. A classic example of the style can be seen in Jacques Tourneur’s noir landmark, Out of the Past (1947). In one shot, that bears a rough compositional similarity to “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew,” two benighted characters sit huddled in a car, surrounded by pitch blackness — an impossibly blinding shaft of light (from the dashboard!) illuminates just their faces: It doesn’t get more chiaroscuro, or film noir, than that.

Jarman underlies the film’s central action, of the love triangle, with a story that becomes increasingly noir-ish, as ever more shocking levels of treachery are revealed. Oscar Wilde’s often-quoted line, from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” applies as much to Caravaggio’s fictionalized plot as to most of film noir: “each man kills the thing he loves.” Jarman reinforces the noir connection both dramatically and visually — but as with his use of sacred motifs, it’s subtle, and only one more of the many strands that make up this film.

When you consider the basic narrative elements of noir fiction and film — they are all masterfully present, for example, in James M. Cain 1936 novel and Billy Wilder’s 1944 picture, Double Indemnity — you’ll see that they synch up with Jarman’s film: a cynical protagonist who’s also the self-deludingly omniscient narrator, a labyrinthine plot with escalating twists, frequent flashbacks (that make time as unstable as space — as does chiaroscuro), and an underlying sense of fatalism.

As Caravaggio’s noir plot elements become unmistakable — during the scene in which Jarman recreates “Death of the Virgin” — he uses, for the first time, a staple of noir lighting, the slatted pattern cast by venetian blinds (previously, Jarman and his designers had gone to great pains to use only authentic period oil skin-covered windows). And this film’s end credits are an homage to perhaps the greatest noir, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), whose world is so horrifically out of balance that even the credits run backwards.

Although not as open as in Jarman, the shadowy world of noir has plenty of gay characters — a few of whom even make it out of the closet — as in Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Vidor’s Gilda (1946), Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955), and Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). But while all of those noirs portray gay characters who are, to some degree, bent, Jarman’s take on sexuality is more humane. Jarman’s gay and, more frequently, bisexual characters — led by Caravaggio and Ranuccio — live la vida noir to the (knife) hilt, but the most corrupt character, who takes hypocrisy to its limits, is the exceedingly heterosexual nobleman, prelate (the highest level of ecclesiastical dignitary), and collector — of both art and beautiful women, including Lena — Scipione Borghese.

Fully aware of the church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships, to the point of death through the Inquisition, Scipione tells Caravaggio: “The Holy Father and myself are prepared to turn a blind eye to Sodom provided you make it worthwhile by bringing the riffraff back to church and placing them in awe of the power of the Holy Father who is, of course, the sole interpreter of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ here on earth.” I’ll let you provide your own commentary. But isn’t Scipione’s elaborate moustache, that at one point he shows is a fake, a revealing touch?

The opposite of Scipione, in every way, is a pivotal character who nonetheless is often overshadowed: Caravaggio’s mute assistant Jerusaleme (perhaps the finest performance by actor Spencer Leigh). The artist bought him as a child from a hopelessly poor grandmother, who can only look to the heavens for solace, saying (in one of the film’s most poignant lines) “The stars are the diamonds of the poor.” Caravaggio raises the boy —  “I taught you the colors, and how to grind them…. The art of priming and glazing with soft squirrel brushes.” — but, even as a strikingly handsome adult, he remains just “A companion in my loneliness.”

Still, Jerusaleme’s unwavering devotion to his volatile master makes the latter much more sympathetic, although it does cast a troubling pall over his emotional wholeness. It’s also an extraordinary depiction of genuine pathos, as opposed to conventional sentimentality, let alone schmaltz. He’s a more psychologically complex version of a comparable character, the long-suffering Justin, so fruitlessly smitten with the title character in Sebastiane. But Jerusaleme ultimately may be modeled on the equally silent Marlene, assistant to the title character in Fassbinder’s 1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (one of Jarman’s ten favorite films); and note the similarities between Marlene’s incessant typing and Jerusaleme’s frequent grinding of pigment, that add a sound-based punctuation to their respective films. In refreshing contrast to the lurking cruelty in Marlene — not to mention film noir — Jerusaleme remains the sweet, if lost, man he seems to be. But like Marlene or Justin, he’s clearly in love — yet can never find a way to express it: certainly, some audience members can relate. And Caravaggio does care about him, and notices his beauty — using him as a model for his luminous Saint John the Baptist series — but it’s never quite enough for him to take the plunge. Or maybe Caravaggio is afraid of the trust and stability that Jerusaleme embodies.

Instead, the artist has flings with guys like the tavern owner Davide, and then hungers for über-hunk Ranuccio, who’s just beaten Davide in a fight. Perhaps the saddest aspect of his self-isolation is how the dying Caravaggio addresses much of his voice-over monologue — his final summing up of his life — to his childhood friend Pasqualone (“my true love”), who also acted as his pimp during his early days in Rome. Pasqualone seems a fascinating character, not least because of his impact on Caravaggio’s life: Jarman should have done more with him dramatically. The Pasqualone relationship brought to mind how the renowned novelist, dramatist and social critic Gore Vidal, in his 1995 memoir Palimpsest, wrote that he’d only loved one person in his life, the angelically handsome Jimmie Trimble, who was killed, many decades earlier, as a teenager during World War II, at the Battle of Iwo Jima. In Jarman’s case, life imitated his art in at least one comforting way: eight years after this film, when Jarman was dying of AIDS, his lover Kevin Collins reportedly slept on the floor by his bed, as Jerusaleme had done for Caravaggio at the end.

Jerusaleme’s importance to the film was even greater in early drafts, when Jarman used him as the focal character, filtering Caravaggio’s life through his eyes. In fact, many of Caravaggio’s voice-over monologues were originally written for him.

While Jerusaleme remains silent throughout, the film is anything but. Jarman brilliantly uses sound to enlarge the world of Caravaggio and bring it to life, even as it provides a shrewd way of keeping the budget in check. To take one example, the small room at Porto Ercole where Caravaggio lies dying is a minimal, but beautifully evocative, set. Yet when Jarman dubs in the sound of the nearby ocean (that he recorded on location at the actual village in Italy), it expands the emotional reach of the physical space. Instead of minimalist set at a former-warehouse sound stage, we can hear — and almost smell — the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In fact, Jarman’s use of minimalism throughout the film — from the sets to the stripped-down versions of Caravaggio paintings — becomes part of the essential style, as both Jarman and his title character both try to refine life, and its antagonist art, to its essence. By contrast, there is also much to admire in, say, Alexander Korda’s superb and lavish 1936 biographical film Rembrandt — with its dozens of massive sets and a cast of hundreds, all in meticulously-reproduced period costumes, led by Charles Laughton in a spellbinding performance. But Jarman, by going in the opposite directions — except, of course, for the liberties he also took with history — has made brilliantly creative use of an almost non-existent budget. (At the last minute, an infusion of funding allowed him to scrap his ultra-minimalist conception, in which the action would be played entirely against black backdrops: but he resurrected that approach, effectively, for Wittgenstein.)

Jarman was a genius at getting maximum emotional, and thematic, effect from the fewest possible elements. He worked closely with art director Michael Buchanan, costume designer Sandy Powell, cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, and his longtime friend Christopher Hobbs as the production designer and head of the four-person art department. Hobbs also painted the Caravaggio canvases seen in the film, although the budget allowed him to create only a few fully realized reproductions, such as “The Lute Player.” As Jarman intended, most of the canvases accurately reflect Caravaggio’s so-called “underpaintings,” rough sketches that he later painted over to create his finished pictures.

As Hobbs points out, in his video interview on the DVD, Jarman emphatically did not want some Hollywood reproduction of Caravaggio’s world; instead, he wanted “an Italy of the mind.” As Tilda Swinton notes, Jarman had spent a good deal of his boyhood in Italy (his father was in the Royal Air Force, and the family moved frequently), but he always had a special affinity for the land of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio. Jarman achieved his unique vision of place, and history, in several ways.

The fundamental technique was to control the color palette and texture of this sound stage-based Italy of four centuries ago. Jarman employed only the colors that Caravaggio uses to depict his world: golden sienna, brown, dark red, black, white, and sometimes a pale green for the walls — with blue used on only the rarest, and most dramatic, occasions. A revealing example of this strategy can be seen in the private chambers of Cardinal Del Monte. Historically, they would have been riotously ornate in the favored Mannerist style, to show off his exalted status in both the ecclesiastical and art worlds. But look at the astonishingly vivid effect that Jarman achieves with just a few shrewdly chosen objects: in the back an elegant vase on a pedestal, wind rustling through a row of huge muslin curtains, Del Monte in elegant red robes playing a toccata on a period harpsichord (the performance was taped using Frescobaldi’s original instrument). And to complete the effect, a glistening floor — achieved not with the costliest marble but merely by wetting down the sound stage, to create an elegant and mysterious reflective surface. This scene, like so many others in the film, is a masterpiece of suggestive design.

A telling instance of how Jarman uses symbolic space comes in the, literally multi-level, gala for the unveiling of the painting, “Profane Love.” At the opulent festivities, that pulse to cool modern jazz, everyone — especially Lena, who has just caught Scipione’s eye — is glistening and golden; some literally so, sporting gold masks of grotesque mythical creatures. Ranuccio comes away richer: putting the moves on a wealthy woman, while she’s kissing him he steals her bejeweled earrings, hiding them in his mouth. But then Jarman strips away the gilt, while exposing the collective guilt, and shows us what’s right below the party: corpse-strewn catacombs. It may be pushing an interpretation, but the labyrinthine plot — that’s only now beginning to reveal its shockingly twisted contours — is not unlike this dark, endless — and historically accurate — maze. But for the characters, it’s not a place of horror; rather, it provides plenty of shadowy cover for their trysts: it’s death and love, in countless combinations.

Jarman went to enormous lengths to cast not only his extraordinary principals, but the “atmosphere” (formerly known as “extras”). He and assistants spent weeks combing the city, trying to find people who look like they belong in Caravaggio’s world, since “Man’s character is in his face.” Their efforts paid off handsomely — and if Caravaggio had magically returned to 1986 London, he could have found his types of models right on set. Ironically, the insouciant boys that Jarman cast for “Concert of Youths”, look even more like the artist’s typical models than the ones in the actual painting, an early work.

That search for the modern in the historical — through anachronism — is perhaps the boldest aspect of Jarman’s visual strategy. Yet as noted above, it’s also precisely what Caravaggio did with his biblical subjects: there were no 1600-style doublets or feathered caps at the martyrdom of Matthew (if, indeed, he even died that way: the Bible and history are both mute). He also employs anachronistic sounds — like offscreen cars honking, a train whistle, a phone ringing — to expand further the limits of the film. As in so much of Jarman, there’s more here than meets the ear or eye.

Jarman’s series of anachronisms — a new one pops up every couple of minutes — gives the film a series of little jolts, that helps keep viewers alert. But these out-of-time objects are always on the mark, like the cigarettes that all of these maudit characters are constantly smoking, Ranuccio’s tacky but attention-getting little cap made of folded newspaper, the wealthy Giustiniani’s pocket calculator (of course, it’s solid gold), and the impossibly fey bitchy art critic Baglione’s old upright typewriter that he bangs away at while soaking in a bathtub (wittily reproducing the film’s only non-Caravaggio tableau vivant: Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1793 painting of the recent assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat).

The single most striking anachronism is arguably the hideous 1930s dark-teal pickup truck — that looms in the shadows behind Caravaggio and Ranuccio in their climactic scene. That hulking vehicle would have been as out of place in 1986 as 1606, yet is a perfect fit as part of, say, Visconti’s Ossessione, that Jarman screened right before beginning this picture. That highlights the selection principle for all but one or two of the anachronisms: Jarman used modern items from no later than 1950 — that, not coincidentally, was the high point of film noir. The effect is often witty, but always disorienting — reflecting the dislocation that Caravaggio feels from his world, and himself, and that he uses in all of his mature works: those strange, tortured angles and twisted human forms, as well as the startling chiaroscuro effects.

Rather than the anachromisms, what most people first hear about this film is Jarman’s breathtaking recreations of a dozen and a half of Caravaggio’s paintings. (If you want to follow along, there’s a full list of the pictures below — but you certainly don’t need to, in order to enjoy Jarman’s picture.) These reproductions are more than gimmicks; they point to the essence of the film, and of Jarman’s enormous achievements.

They are also skillfully, and often wittily, integrated into the action. We first see the teenage Caravaggio taking control of his art and his life, as he fends off the lecherous advances of the wealthy Giustiniani. Shirtless, clutching a bottle of wine, and teasing the half-dressed old old fool for love, he laughs, “I’m an art object, and very, very expensive. You’ve had your money’s worth.” Then rid of his suitor, he puts on a grape leaf crown, chugs some wine, and naturally relaxes into the pose he’ll paint in one of his early masterpiece, “The Sick Bacchus”. Counterpointing this youthful ribaldry, we hear the dying Caravaggio reflect ironically — but also accurately, as he subtly highlights both the painter’s and this film’s mythic depths — “I built my world on divine mystery.”

Jarman sometimes erects more elaborate and complex dramatic structures around his living recreations of paintings. Let’s look at what he does with “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew,” that we explored above as an example of Caravaggio’s work and, perhaps, obsessions. In the film, it works on many levels. As with all of the tableaux vivants, Jarman does more than faithfully reproduce the light, colors and textures of the original. We see real people — none of whom came from the London equivalent of Central Casting — portraying real models: they get bored and antsy, wonder when they’re going to get something to eat, check each other out for possible hook-ups later, and want to get paid. (But note that while these models appear in the sequence for the “Martyrdom” painting, their positions and costumes do not exactly match the final canvas; in fact, they do not closely resemble any of Caravaggio’s paintings. Perhaps Jarman was improvising one of Caravaggio’s many lost works; or maybe speculating about an early draft of the final picture — in any event, the reactions of the models feels right.)

When Jarman does turn to a literal depiction of The “Martyrdom of Saint Matthew,” his focus is on Caravaggio’s obsession with Ranuccio, modeling the semi-nude killer: the homoerotic subtext could hardly be made more visceral. By extension, the absence of Matthew puts Caravaggio in the role of martyr — but to art, and passion — with his gaze transfixed on the executioner. Jarman increases the psychological intensity of the scene by including the two principals’ significant others, Jerusaleme and Lena. Although they are silent and in the shadowy background, we know enough about them to intuit their feelings of quiet jealousy, as they watch their men make a spectacle of themselves. This is one of the film’s most sexually charged moments, although there’s only the briefest contact between Caravaggio and Ranuccio. The painter has to stop every few minutes to give his seductively smirking model another gold florin… and another.

The scene climaxes when Caravaggio makes Ranuccio take a coin from his lips, then they kiss. Ranuccio has been hoarding his day’s wages entirely inside his bulging mouth. (Jarman later parallels this scene with one in which Ranuccio and Lena, lying in a hammock at a 180 degree angle to each other, cascade each other with the florins he’s earned — but Lena herself will soon be in the money; and note that this ‘head to toe’ configuration parallels Jerusaleme’s position on the floor in relation to the dying Caravaggio, whom he’s watching over: the more closely you look at this film, the more there is to see.)

But there’s more in Jarman’s approach than meets the eye. As noted above, one of the films that Jarman screen in preparation was Godard’s Passion. The similarities, and differences, can help reveal Jarman’s unique achievement. Godard uses Rembrandt’s 1642 “Night Watch” for the first tableau vivant — in the movie-within-the-film being shot by a befuddled director — to question the relationship between the painted and cinematic images; more particularly, how the human body can speak for what it’s representing. As Godard’s never-identified woman narrator says in voice-over: “Don’t scrutinize the structure or the distances… do like Rembrandt, examine human beings attentively, at length. Look at their lips and into their eyes.” (Recall the line of Jarman’s Caravaggio, “Man’s character is in his face.”) Ironically but resonantly, Godard then cuts to a shot of a fired factory worker (played by Isabelle Huppert), in a pose out of Rembrandt (that also would have delighted the pre-Caravaggio Mannerists): her back is to the camera while she’s looking sideways — but we can see in her face the confusion and frustration she’s feeling. Taking the Rembrandt, and its historical context, plus Godard’s film into account, this moment is like a dizzying spiral of life to art to life to film to hybrid art.

But Jarman goes even further — psychologically and thematically — in one of his film’s most ambiguous moments. During Caravaggio’s obsessive painting of Ranuccio, now as the youthful “John the Baptist”, he enters his darkened studio to see a muscular body, draped in the the baptist’s red cloak; but when the model rises, it’s not Ranuccio — it’s Jerusaleme holding the suggestive cane. This moment not only doubles — or taking Caravaggio’s original into account, triples — the intertwining of life and art, it becomes a pivotal moment in the master/ servant relationship. Jerusaleme, at last, all but throws himself at the painter — only to be gently rebuffed. Caravaggio will continue his self-frustrating quest to find “pure spirit in matter” to the end.

Another strategy common to Godard and Jarman, is to allow the figures — in Jarman’s case, with psychologically apparent motivations, such as fatigue — to shift around.

In Caravaggio, Jarman brings together life and art in a manner that’s both comical (who hasn’t gotten bored trying to hold a pose) but revealing. Thematically, this reintroduces both the body and the notion of time into paintings that are otherwise, by their nature, frozen. Jarman reveals not only the messiness of life behind the pictures — from folly to violence — but, through this film, how they come together. Is this the achievement of what haunted his fictional Caravaggio: the joining together of flesh and blood, with canvas and paint?

Ultimately, Jarman knows that we will make of his film what we will, confronted — like so many artists in so many media — with the dilemma of how to reconcile, or not, art and lived experience.

Jarman’s Caravaggio lives a life as difficult to parse as the cryptic paintings of the real painter (whoever he may have been): passion, violence, contradictions — all wrapped in sublime beauty. In a way, Caravaggio’s talismanic dagger cuts a line that runs from the Renaissance and Baroque right up to today, and beyond.

Perhaps a more useful question than What does it mean?, is Who is it for? Maybe Ranuccio’s last words — at once shocking and tender — suggest some kind of answer: “For love…. For you. For us.”

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Caravaggio in Caravaggio

First, here is a complete illustrated list of all Caravaggio’s paintings, in chronological order (1593–1610).

In Jarman’s film, here are the Caravaggio paintings shown and/or recreated as tableaux, in the order in which they appear. Titles link to online reproductions and commentary, each opening in a new window:

In addition to these clear reproductions, Jarman draws on other Caravaggio works as inspiration for the film’s sets, costumes, and lighting. For example, many of peasants are dressed to resemble those in the Milan version of “Supper at Emmaus” and “The Tooth Puller”. The press kit identifies two additional paintings in the film — “Narcissus” and “David With the Head of Goliath”

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  • Directed by Derek Jarman
  • Screenplay by Jarman, from a screen story by Nicholas Ward Jackson
  • Produced by Sarah Radclyffe
  • Development Producer: James Mackay
  • Executive Producers: Nicholas Ward Jackson and Colin MacCabe
  • Executive in Charge of Production: Jill Pack
  • Production Manager: Sarah Wilson
  • Edited by George Akers
  • Production Designer: Christopher Hobbs
  • Art Direction by Michael Buchanan
  • Art Department: Christopher Hobbs, Annie La Paz, Lucy Morahan, Tim Youngman
  • Costume Design by Sandy Powell
  • Makeup by Morag Ross
  • Sound Department: Peter Maxwell, Billy McCarthy, George Richards, ‘Budge’ Tremlett, Steve Hancock
  • Thanks to Suso Cecchi d’Amico
  • Original Music by Simon Fisher-Turner
  • Additional Music:
    • “Missa Lux Et Orgio” (by permission of Casa Musicale Eco, Milan)
    • “Scicilian Work Songs” (by permission of Lyrichord Discs, Inc., New York)
    • “El Niño” (by permission of Harmonia Mundi)

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  • Noam Almaz as Boy Caravaggio
  • Dawn Archibald as Pipo
  • Sean Bean as Ranuccio
  • Jack Birkett as The Pope
  • Una Brandon-Jones as Weeping Woman
  • Imogen Claire as Lady with the Jewels
  • Robbie Coltrane as Scipione Borghese
  • Garry Cooper as Davide
  • Sadie Corre as Princess Collona
  • Lol Coxhill as Old Priest
  • Nigel Davenport as Giustiniani
  • Vernon Dobtcheff as Art Lover
  • Terry Downes as Bodyguard
  • Simon Fisher Turner as Fra Fillipo
  • Dexter Fletcher as Young Caravaggio
  • Michael Gough as Cardinal Del Monte
  • Kevin Hull as Roman in toga (uncredited)
  • Jonathan Hyde as Baglione
  • Spencer Leigh as Jerusaleme
  • Emile Nicolaou as Young Jerusaleme
  • Gene October as Model Peeling Fruit
  • Cindy Oswin as Lady Elizabeth
  • John Rogan as Vatican Official
  • Chelita Secunda as (uncredited)
  • Zohra Sehgal as Jerusaleme’s Grandmother
  • Tilda Swinton as Lena
  • Lucien Taylor as Boy with Guitar
  • Nigel Terry as Caravaggio
  • Cerith Wyn Evans as Altar boy (uncredited)

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Original Video Release (Used for This Review)

Zeitgeist Films’ DVD has exceptional image and sound quality. All of the many supplements — ranging from dozens of Jarman’s sketches to new video interviews with key cast and crew, plus rare Jarman interviews — are of enormous interest. Like all five films in the collection Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4, this is a superb release. Caravaggio is not only one of Jarman’s masterpieces but arguably one of the greatest works of its time. Following is a list of special features for this release.

  • Restored anamorphic transfer, created from Hi-Def elements
  • Video interviews with actress Tilda Swinton, actor Nigel Terry and production designer Christopher Hobbs
  • Audio commentary by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain
  • Rare audio and video interviews with Derek Jarman
  • Storyboard, notebook, production photo and sketch galleries
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
  • In Region 1, this film is available both as a separate DVD for $29.99 suggested retail, and as part of the four-disc / five-film box set, Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 (The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, and Blue, plus the posthumous Glitterbug) — $74.99 suggested retail.
Jim's Reviews / Jarman
Jim’s Reviews / Jarman

Reviewed Month xx, 200x / Revised October 12, 2020

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