The great 17th-century Italian painter is given the screen treatment in Jarman’s idiosyncratic, if at times anachronistic, deconstruction of a brilliant but tormented figure, featuring an indelible supporting performance by Tilda Swinton in her acting debut.
Dir. Derek Jarman
1986 | UK | Biography/Drama | 93 min | 1.85:1 | English & Italian
Not rated – likely to be M18 for some nudity and homosexual references
Cast: Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton
Plot: In 17th-century Rome, Caravaggio hustled painting commissions out of the Church while consorting with male lovers, sex workers, and the criminal underclass. On his deathbed, his mind drifts back, recalling the brutal, sensual relationship with model Ranuccio Thomasoni and Ranuccio’s mistress, Lena.
Awards: Won Silver Bear (Berlinale)
Source: Nonstop Entertainment
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
The first-ever film I have seen from Derek Jarman, Caravaggio is not a bad place to start and is considered one of his more accessible works. That being said, it is still an arthouse film with avant-garde sensibilities, and will be an acquired taste for more adventurous cinephiles.
The subject of Jarman’s film is Caravaggio, one of the greatest Italian painters who died in 1610, and whose influence on what is now known as the 17th-century Baroque period of painting remains undeniable.
Played by Nigel Terry in a performance that captures not just the tormented artist, but also his moments of rapturous inspiration, Caravaggio is accompanied by his model-cum-lover, Ranuccio (Sean Bean), and Lena, the latter’s girlfriend, who would also interest him.
“All art is against lived experience.”
Lena is played by a young Tilda Swinton in her acting debut; back then it was already apparent she would become the great, compelling actress that she is today. She is seductive yet there is sadness in her eyes as she becomes a pawn in an unforgiving world of reckless, conniving men.
This world, very much of the period it may seem, is slyly deconstructed by Jarman, who gives it a touch of anachronism (for instance, we see a small part of an automobile jutting into one of the shots). The film is also at once cinematic yet theatrical.
Flashbacks show us the younger Caravaggio as his older self reminisces his earlier days on his deathbed—these are scenes that bring us closer to the character. At the same time, few would have been surprised if the camera had pulled away and revealed a stage.
Overall, Caravaggio is an interesting experiment that will grow on you as you continue to watch it unfold.