Directed by Derek Jarman
In a white room somewhere in Porto Ercole, Tuscany, a man lays dying. At a nearby table, his deaf-dumb friend sits, cutting a small piece of wood into tiny pieces with a sharp knife. The sick man’s breathing comes in difficult draws, much like the echo of the nearby sea. His mind races as he recalls a short lifetime’s worth of memories, tragedies, and accomplishments.
His name is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and he was a painter. Not just any painter, but one of the most celebrated, and despised, in all of Rome. During his career, he had shook the art world to its core and shocked the heart of the Church. Genius, rebel, lover, fighter...he was all of these things. But now, in the little white room, he is just a man slowly dying to the rhythm of the waves. Soon, it will be all over. His passing will be noted but not mourned. His art, once celebrated, will drift into obscurity. But he will not be forgotten. Instead of being remembered by critics and historians, he lives on in the 80 of his paintings to survive to the modern day. Indeed, although mocked and ridiculed in his own time, he influenced countless other artists and imitators. One of these was English director Derek Jarman. In 1986, he released a film memorializing his work and life. Simply entitled Caravaggio, is not so much a film, but a complete artistic realization of a man that time forgot.
The film is told via a sequence of disjointed flashbacks as Caravaggio literally sleeps on his deathbed. We see him as a teenager who hustles old men and paints fiery portraits. “I painted myself as Bacchus and took on his fate,” the old man recollects. These works attract the eye of Cardinal Del Monte who takes him in and gives him an education.
The Cardinal molds his young mind, teaching him reading, philosophy, and religion. He commissions several paintings and finds himself more and more amazed by what he finds. Regarding a portrait of a sick young man that Caravaggio painted and modeled for, he asks, “Why is the skin painted green?” Caravaggio answers, “Because I was sick when I painted it.”
Caravaggio stuns critics and fellow artisans with his (for the time) unorthodox methods. Painters of the time would hire models, draw sketches, and then paint based on the sketches. Caravaggio painted the actual models directly onto the canvas at great speed, refusing to idealize them. He would hire street people to pose for his religious paintings.
This would include the use of prostitutes as models for the Virgin and female saints. Even more unusual than his methods were his finished products. One of the pioneers of chiaroscuro, he drowned his subjects in stark rays of light amidst oceans of black and shadows. There was almost no contrast to his works: there was light, there was darkness. His paintings were also full of anachronisms: subjects and models for historical pieces would frequently be depicted wearing modern (17th century) clothes.
When he wasn’t painting, Caravaggio would raise hell by drinking, fighting, and brawling his way through Italy. Along the way he discovers Ranuccio, a street fighter, who captures his imagination and heart. He begins a torrid affair with Ranuccio and his girlfriend Lena. Both Ranuccio and Lena are jealous of each other and compete for Caravaggio’s attention...at least until Lena announces that she is pregnant. Ranuccio pleads with her and asks who the child belongs to. “Why, to me,” she coyly replies. In addition, she adds that she is leaving them both to become the mistress to the wealthy Scipione Borghese. She adds, almost giggling in her defeat over Ranuccio, “The child...the child will be wealthy beyond avarice.”
Lena is later found dead, having been drowned in a canal. Ranuccio is arrested for murder. Caravaggio repents of his former lifestyle and begs the Pope to free Ranuccio. Having succeeded in freeing him, Ranuccio and Caravaggio embrace. “We sure fooled them,” Ranuccio laughs. Caravaggio freezes. “I did it so we could be together,” says Ranuccio. A disbelieving Caravaggio slits Ranuccio’s throat and flees from the authorities. For several years, he stays on the run. He manages to avoid being found until he takes up a bed in that little white room in Porto Ercole. He refuses to accept Last Rites from the Church.
Yet he dies with the memory of seeing the Passion as a child lingering on his mind. Here ends the life of Caravaggio, a contradiction until the very end.
Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio is a stunning film to behold. Jarman’s care for scene composition is astonishing. Every second of the film has been framed as if it were a still life or fresco done by the master painter himself. Jarman used candles and other unusual means to replicate the same chiaroscuro shadows and lighting that dominated Caravaggio’s paintings.
In addition to merely replicating Caravaggio’s paintings via composition and form, Jarman replicated the very techniques that he used to create his masterpieces. He would deliberately cast odd choices for various roles, most notably that of Jack Birkett, a flamboyant homosexual, as the Catholic Pope.
For Lena, he cast Tilda Swinton in her first on-screen role. Swinton does NOT make a convincing street urchin as she somehow radiates straight through the dust and mud that covers her body.
Just as Caravaggio placed historical anachronisms in his paintings, so too does Jarman. In an early scene when Caravaggio lives on the street, he robs an older man dressed in a contemporary white suit.
At a local bar, the actors smoke cigarettes and bask in visible electric lights.
During a premiere of his work, light jazz is heard playing. Afterwards, an art critic lounges in a tub while banging away at a review on a typewriter.
And, most notably, a high church official plays with a small electric calculator while being attended on by three servants wearing black and white suits.
But these are all trivial details. The true triumph of Caravaggio can hardly be summed up in words or explanations. The film is simply majestic to watch. It has a beauty that has only been matched by a very few films, Days of Heaven and The River being two prominent examples. It is a consummate, tortured, and nearly uncontainable work of art. But most incredibly, Jarman’s film is not the story of Caravaggio’s life. Instead, it is the story of Caravaggio’s art, his techniques, and his tragedy. Indeed, Caravaggio could quite possibly be the very film that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio would have made if he had been commissioned to make a film about his life.