I went into Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio a little foggier about the film’s prospects than I would have liked; reviews for it seemed to be all over the place, and I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. Thankfully, I was quickly able to discern what the film did have to offer fairly soon during the film’s brief running time, and found myself adequately satisfied with having my swiftly-formulated conceptions be right on the mark. I will say, this isn’t a film to go into not knowing what it will be like, so I will attempt to clear up any uncertainty that might be hovering over you, as, given the right mindset, this is very much a film worth exploring.
The titular Caravaggio is a historical painter, and this film is a biopic exploring the hedonistic nature of the life he lived. The film jumps back and forth between various periods of Caravaggio’s life, from his youth and burgeoning fame as a painter, to his deathbed, and the rest of his life in between, in particular his relationship first with street-fighter-turned-model Ranuccio, then with Ranuccio’s girlfriend Lena, and the menage a trois that develops between them. The story is told unconventionally, frequently hopscotching between these time periods with little incentive or continuity in doing so, but I don’t hold it against the film any, though I wasn’t fully certain why it chose to tell the story this way. Speaking of which, the story is a good one, and it wins points for the historical era it is set in, as well as being purportedly the story of Caravaggio’s life (albeit a fictionalized one), but if there’s one main selling point to this film, it’s not the story; it’s the visuals. Where Jarman manages to succeed is in the art direction, in making every frame of this film look like one of the paintings from the era it’s set in. It’s a veritable feast for the eyes, though I will admit it is not one that the list had been lacking before the editors saw fit to include Jarman’s film, and it is this that’s largely why I gave it the rating I did. Funny additional notes can be found in the anachronisms in the film, such as one character using an electronic calculator and Caravaggio himself leaning against a truck, which are entirely intentional, hearkening back to the real life Caravaggio’s practice of adorning Biblical figures in his paintings with modern garments. Oh, and special mention to Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton (Ranuccio and Lena respectively), who both star in their first feature film here.
I enjoyed this quite a bit, even if I didn’t see very well why it had been added to the list to begin with. I imagine I might’ve liked this even better if I had seen it nearer to the beginning of my quest instead of near the end, as I’ve done here, but them’s the breaks. The outstanding look and feel of the film, coupled with the production value, made this as authentic an experience as the film possibly could have been, especially for the time period it is set in, and Jarman deserves some congratulations for what he has achieved here; commendation that he was given in the form of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s not going to be “knock-your-socks-off amazing”, but at the very least, you should be able to appreciate this one a heck of a lot.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10