Caravaggio

Derek Jarman claimed that he rewrote the script for Caravaggio 17 times over the seven years he spent raising funds for its production. Released in 1986, Caravaggio was the first of Jarman’s films to be seen by a comparatively wide audience, partly due to the involvement of then-still-fledgling Channel 4. The film describes a period of British filmmaking towards the end of the gritty, neo-realist dramas of the early 80s, as a lush, highly stylised and unselfconsciously artistic mode began to assert itself. Caravaggio, with its painterly lighting and Renaissance-appropriate muted tones, belongs to a lineage of films explicitly concerned with their own status as artworks.

The life of the real Caravaggio was marked by violence and flight – his patrons became finally unable to excuse his frequent brawling after he killed a young man in 1606, allegedly after castrating him with a sword. As a result he was forced to flee Rome under threat of a death sentence, and died four years later under mysterious circumstances. Jarman’s Caravaggio is febrile and sulky, broken-toothed and doomed, and dies slowly of lead poisoning in exile.

Jarman may well have been drawn to the nebulous politics of an earlier era because of his sense that there is not a significant difference between the real and the constructed. A distinctly mystical sensibility permeates the film, aided by soft focus and a harpsichord accompaniment, and the deliberate inclusion of anachronistic elements – a typewriter, a cigarette – help in illuminating the fictive quality of the visual, and brings the past into closer communion with the present.

In an interview, Jarman talks about Caravaggio’s radicalism, in which he proffered “a complete reinterpretation of the Christian tradition of that moment” – as in his painting titled Mary Magdalene, for which the model (some believe) was a well-known prostitute at the time. This artistic daring, Jarman declares, is “just what we lack – I realise that Caravaggio’s age is in some ways more open than ours is”. Reading the New York Times review of the film when it came out, you might see his point: disdainfully, the reviewer writes, “In one elaborate and overly extended scene, gold coins pass from Caravaggio's mouth to Ranuccio's to Lena's, thereby establishing an unsanitary sexual connection… Such carryings on are rather much for so paltry a story - opera without the music”. Caravaggio remains probably Jarman’s best-known film, and its status as artwork is assured for its ability to collapse time and space. The moment is held still for a moment as it teeters on the brink of its obsolescence, eternally arriving.

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