Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio does not exactly belong to a determined time or place. As he would later prove with Edward II, thinking outside the rigid format of the historically accurate box became Jarman’s trademark. To satisfy his unique vision of Caravaggio’s troubled existence, Jarman preferred to shoot in a run down warehouse located in Canary Wharf rather than the original plan of filming in Rome, due partly to a very restricted budget, The austere and purposely dust-filled warehouse, was combined with a wardrobe, soundtrack, and objects that were more pre-World War II than 16th century, thrown together with very realistic Caravaggio pieces produced by Christopher Hobbs. Several times in the film,the camera sets its eye upon objects that don’t belong in 16th century Italy: an electronic pocket calculator,cigarettes, a 1940’s truck parked in a stable, and a man in a bathtub typing with a manual typewriter whose image looks strangely similar to French Revolution Jacobian Jean-Paul Marat, as he wrote his overly zealous revolutionary views for his newspaper, L’Ami du peuple. However, in Jarman’s Caravaggio these objects of modernity allow the film the unique view of a man who was ahead of his time, transporting art into a newly discovered movement: the baroque.
The film’s plot is centered on the life of 16th century Renaissance artist Michelangelo da Caravaggio, a man whose temper equaled his genius and frequently provoked violent drunken brawls with other men. The film begins with Caravaggio sweat-ridden, violently ill in his bed, Jerusaleme the servant he adopted as a child,by his side. As he begins to look back on his life,the story is told using frequent segmented flashbacks, first to his teenage years where he lives on the streets, eventually his talent catching the eye of the powerful cardinal Del Monte, who gives him his start to fame and what will prove to be a valuable link to the Vatican.
As time passes, Caravaggio becomes increasingly famous, but also more violent and promiscuous, sleeping with both male and female, most of them his own still models. He is not entirely respected in the art world, as he is seen as common and vulgar, only given commissions due to his connections with Del Monte. He soon meets a street fighter by the name of Ranuccio, and Caravaggio sees in him promising potential, not only as a model but also as a lover. Ranuccio has a relationship with a woman, Lena, played by Tilda Swinton (this would be the first of nine films she would make with Jarman) who likewise becomes an object of desire for Caravaggio. After lavishing attentions on Lena and bestowing her with a lavish new dress, the threesome are given an invitation to the house of an overly mannered man named Giustiniani, who hosts an extravagant party among underground catacombs, filled with skeletons dressed with rich robes and lavish jewelry. It is after this bizarre soiree, that Lena announces that she is pregnant, but does not give the name of the father. Later, a jumpcut shows Lena caked in mud, pulled from the river, drowned by unknown hands. While Caravaggio and Jerusaleme lovingly clean her body as preparation for her funeral, Ranuccio is accused of her murder, and thrown into a cell. As Caravaggio mourns Lena, he decides to paint her as the Virgin Mary, thereof giving birth to his masterpiece The Death of the Virgin. After pulling strings with the Vatican, he secures Ranuccio’s release by convincing the Pope that the responsibility for Lena’s death lies in her wealthy lover, Scipione Borghese. He is immediately taken aback by Ranuccio’s shameless confession that he did indeed murder Lena so he and Caravaggio could at last be together. Mad with rage, Caravaggio slits Ranuccio’s throat, sobbing over his dead body, stricken by what he has been forced to do. The film ends with Caravaggio again on his deathbed, rejecting the last rites a Catholic priest offers him, as a form of salvation.
Strangely beautiful and visibly austere, Caravaggio is also quite macabre, Giustiniani’s party,with niches of rotted mummies among rich red damask and jewelry reflects perhaps of the underlying hypocrisy and corrupt practices of the Catholic church during the Renaissance, Additionally, Caravaggio’s represented homosexuality in the film, which bothered many critics at the time of its release, was perhaps Derek Jarman asserting his views on the issues of gay civil rights, which were virtually non-existent in Thatcherite England. In regards to this,Jarman was always a strong representative and advocate, frequently using his films as vehicles for social commentary on the subject.
Caravaggio was a awarded the Silver Bear the Berlin International Film Festival of 1986 for Best Visual Presentation. As the film honored the Master’s realism in his paintings, his intense chiaroscuro, and the use of co-extensive space, with Jarman’s own visionary style of cleverly placed anochronistic details, it is safe to say that an award in this category would have pleased Caravaggio himself.