CARAVAGGIO (UK 1986) *** 1/2
Painter-cineaste Derek Jarman, one of the "enfants terribles" of the contemporary British scene, has come up with an avant-garde "biography" of the great Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) which is imaginary yet factual, artful yet campy, arty yet artsy, original but self -indulgent, and fascinating for specialized audiences.
Kudos to the New Art Theatre for living up to its name with this most chance-taking item. Not that "Caravaggio" is alienatingly esoteric: in London it has drawn large audiences; at the Berlin Film Festival it won the Silver Bear, the second highest prize. But it is neither your nice Hollywood biopic of an artist nor a feature-length documentary, so that, in its bewildering (to some) "otherness" , the outrageous "Caravaggio" is bound to polarize audiences.
At the very least I'd say that this is a must for art-lovers and students, for people interested in off-beat film and theatre and visuals. Shot on a limited budget in a warehouse by the Thames, "Caravaggio" roams around at will, flashing back from the dying painter to his youth, and re-zig-zagging forward to the painter's death.
It is done in broken bits, against all traditional notions of continuity. As it goes along, it invents, at times gratuitously, at times on the fragile basis of history (or legend) -- and it is always perversely, often delightfully, anachronistic. Stylized places and years move in and out, merge, fuse, separate. There are" nows"-- the 20th century, vague, almost atemporal; 16th century "thens"; twilight, "no time" zones; periods when the incursions of modernity in the past vary in intensity: a corrupt Roman tinkering with a musical calculator as he talks to a Cardinal, a Caravaggio patron; a typewriter, a motorcycle, modern dress. The anachronisms are not visually intrusive. They are reinforced by sounds of accordeons, jazz bands, jets, radio or TV, which, however, are not shown.
The story may be confusing, but the art visuals are not, and they're quite extraordinary. Caravaggio used models for paintings and Jarman goes to the paintings to reproduce the models as living still lifes, in minute reconstructions.
The painter's models were people of the lower classes. The revolutionary, naturalistic, forceful, controversial Caravaggio -- an out and out tradition-breaking avant-gardist -- used whores for Madonnas (as in "The Death of the Virgin," scandal-making, because of its different emphasis of figures), cutthroats for saints, novel angles and perspectives : in "The Conversion of St. Paul " a huge horse dominates.
Jarman repeats Caravaggio's magnificent use of sometimes brutal light in what is the best demonstration of chiaroscuro, a Caravaggio innovation and, to this day, a lesson about the immense possibilities of one-source lighting.
Says Jarman: "Caravaggio invented dramatic lighting ...similar to the kind of light used in the cinema. In a way he invented cinematic light....Every Italian cameraman is grounded in Caravaggio..."
What was shock for Caravaggio's contemporaries is a different shock, that of recognition, for us, as familiar paintings follow one another, "coming to you live" as well as on on canvas. It is unique, superbly lit and photographed, inventive with props which can be costumes, carefully arranged fruit or painstakingly folded blankets and rags.
As Caravaggio paints, the canvases-in-progress are so convincingly done that, so far as I know, they're the very best I have ever seen in a film. (I have no documentation on the movie and I cannot identify the person who did those paintings).
Jarman's whimsy goes beyond Caravaggio and into paintings by those of a like artistic bent or those that Caravaggio influenced directly or indirectly. Jarman's actors and objects are in groupings, poses, situations which do not copy other works of art, but are inspired by them, mostly by the use of light: references, serious variants, tongue-in-cheek homages.
Among them Le Nain, La Tour, Zurbaran and Velasquez... Sometimes the trick jumps at you: an amusingly modified David," The Death of Danton" in his "sabot" (portable bathtub). Sometimes the compositions are throwaway, lightning-fast. Between blinks you just might recognize some of them, a Donatello sculpture for instance.
The film's Caravaggio is bisexual, with the stress on homoeroticism. His major non-art passion, Ranuccio, is his equally bisexual model, a beautiful low-life hunk that becomes the painter's blood brother after a fight in a dive, and whom Caravaggio kills at the end.
Film connoisseurs might notice that "Caravaggio" does double duty with its unstated but clear references to the late Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. He too came up from the slums. He was a revolutionary artist, a marxist, a homosexual who was killed by one of his young pickups. "Caravaggio" is even built more or less along Pasoliniesque lines of disdain and provocation. It also shows the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, especially the1982 film "Passion."
This is a wild film where the actors, pronouncedly British , mostly play Cockneys who play Italians. Where a voice-off narration ranges from poetic simplicity ("The stars are the diamonds of the poor") to platitudes, disquisitions (e.g. on Giordano Bruno) and purple prose. Where the painting of "Profane Love" is accompanied by lyrical flamenco singing. Where gold coins are stored in mouths, transmitted by kisses and placed, Mafia-style, on the eyes of Caravaggio's black-suited corpse, lying in state like a Sicilian Don.
You cannot judge "Caravaggio" by habitual standards. It has wretched excesses, "longueurs," claustrophobia, calculated distancing. But it is also an original experiment, a one-of-a-kind tribute to a ground-breaking master, and a feast of color, light and shadows.