Caravaggio - Newsweek Review

Last Update: 06 Oct 2007

The Italian Renaissance in pagan and poetic glory
by Edward Behr
May 5, 1986

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1573 - 1610) was the last, perhaps the
greatest, and certainly the most controversial painter of the Italian
Renaissance. The virtual inventor of chiaroscuro (the use of theatrical light
effects), Caravaggio also dressed the New Testament figures in his pictures in
the clothing of his own contemporaries. He took pimps, prostitutes and street
urchins into his studio to pose as sensuous, sometimes naked models for the
saints. This shocked - and delighted - his patrons. In an age when the papacy
itself was self-indulgent, corrupt and immoral, Caravaggio's bisexuality, his
propensity for violence and his scorn of court conventions made him the enfant
terrible of the Italian aristocracy. The Medicis, the Modenas and the Mantuas
bought everything he painted at fees comparable to those Picasso commanded in
his prime, but they remained wary of an artist who could not be bought or

Jarman, himself a controversial British director whose first film, Sebastiane,
was a homosexual love story, has now made a movie that in its own bold and
quirky way is worthy of its subject. The whole of Caravaggio, which opened in
Britain last week, is shot inside a converted warehouse on the Isle of Dogs on
the Thames River. Jarman turned the warehouse into the painter's studio, with
the opulence of Medici palaces and the Vatican hinted at by skillful use of
drapes, color and a few selected artifacts. In an off-screen commentary,
Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) tells his life story in flashbacks: it's a strange,
singularly modern tale - by Jean Genet out of Norman Mailer, if you will. After
a series of brawls, Caravaggio was officially barred from carrying weapons in
1605. But then he killed a man and fled to Naples, where he lived in hiding for
four years. On his journey back to Rome, he was taken for a pirate, badly
beaten and died of exhaustion and ill treatment. He was 36 years old.

Jarman has used poetic license to turn what may have been the casual murder of
an acquaintance into a love story between two handsome, bisexual and deeply
disturbed men. In Jarman's Caravaggio, actor Terry discovers Ranuccio Tommasoni
(played by Sean Bean with beefy, rugged, dangerous charm) at a prizefight. He
bribes him to become his favorite model and falls in love with him - and with
Ranuccio's mistress, Lena, a courtesan whose clients include the pope's
brother. There is nothing sentimental or exclusive about the relationship
between the two men. Caravaggio has other lovers, and it's clear that
Caravaggio is drawn to Ranuccio because he finds in the tough male model a
contempt for law and order that mirrors his own. Lena (played by Tilda Swinton,
an authentic Renaissance beauty who seems to have stepped straight out of an
original Caravaggio canvas) becomes pregnant. Ranuccio kills her, Caravaggio
uses her corpse as a model and then stabs Ranuccio to death.

Contemporary touches: The spectacular, painterly camera work of Mexican-born
Gabriel Beristain makes this film one of the most visually satisfying in recent
years. And Jarman depicts his characters with the same kinds of contemporary
touches that Caravaggio used. Ranuccio tinkers with an old motorcycle. Workers
wear paper hats made out of pages of the modern newspaper L'UnitÓ. A banker
works out a corrupt deal at the Vatican on a slim electronic calculator. In his
final death scene, Caravaggio is dressed in a funeral suit of a typical
Sicilian mafioso, with gold coins placed over his eyes.

Jarman defends his approach by saying that it could not have been done
otherwise, given his budget (a minuscule $700,000). The language of the players
is hip, camp, wordly- wise; the Renaissance was an age of cynicism, and modern
working-class accents aren't jarring. Indeed, the film is so well made that
even with these potentially disturbing elements, the mood is much like that of
Caravaggio's paintings - brooding, sensual, pagan in the extreme.

Those who recall Jarman's "scandalous" reputation for depicting homosexual love
and violence will be disappointed. Caravaggio is chaste, poetic and restrained.
True, the British Board of Film Censors has declared that only people 18 years
old or more may be admitted, but that can only be explained in terms of latent
homophobia. The film is as erotic as a Caravaggio painting, which means it's
about 100 times more tasteful than what millions of 10-year-olds watch on
television every night.



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