Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Derek Jarman, 1986
Starring: Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Davenport, Michael Gough, Spencer Leigh

This is one of those movies that I've had from Netflix for about a month and a half. Though I'm a huge fan of Jarman's work as a director -- such as Edward II and Wittgenstein -- and an artist, I just never felt like I was in the mood for Caravaggio. For the record, Caravaggio himself is one of my favorite painters of all time. But holy smokes, I should not have waited. The film is beautiful, the performances are passionate and masterful, particularly considering that most of these actors were very young and not well known. I fell deeply and instantly in love with Nigel Terry, who was perfect in the lead role as Caravaggio.

Obviously Jarman took a lot of liberties with Caravaggio's actual biography. Though the painter was known for his outrageous personality and frequently dangerous lifestyle, only loose documentation and evidence of his day-to-day life remains. Caravaggio is roughly about the rise and fall of the painter, but focuses on a doomed threesome between himself and two of his loves/models: Lena (Tilda Swinton in her first role) and Ranuccio (a young and very sexy Sean Bean), naive lovers who really only care about each other and making money. Caravaggio wins them over, first with money and presents, and then through love and sex. Soon they become fickle and spoiled and have designs of rising in society. Things come to a tragic head when they become consumed with greed, bringing their lives crashing abruptly down around them.

I cannot say enough about the visual world of this film. Jarman began his career as an art director (he worked on my favorite film of all time, Ken Russel's The Devils) and has an undeniable eye for beautiful set pieces. His production designer, Christopher Hobbs, also definitely doesn't disappoint. The writing is equally successful, though quietly understated. The plot kind of dallies along at its own pace, but emotions in this film are real and passionate. Jarman worked expertly with the ensemble of actors here, who he would go on to use throughout his career. Nigel Terry, in particular, is very impressive. What he is able to convey with a glance or a word is astounding.

I'm reviewing the region 1, single disc Zeitgeist release, which I was perfectly content with. They're a smaller company that has released a number of British art films, namely the work of Jarman and Peter Greenaway. Caravaggio is a unique crossbreed between biographical drama and art film and borrows a good deal from the artistic biographies of Ken Russel, not that there's anything wrong with that. It comes highly recommended, particularly for fans of British art house fare. As one of the Amazon reviewers states: "five stars is not enough." Agreed. I think I'm going to watch it again tonight.