Caravaggio is a great painter. His paintings are famous for their play of light and bold strokes. Caravaggio depicted men who were a part of the underworld during that time in Italy. He himself was an avid partaker of the underworld and drank himself into poverty. There is also rumors that he was a homosexual or at least bisexual because of the way he portrays men and young boys. Derek Jarman takes these facts about Caravaggio and transplants them into this weird modern-day and yet period art film.
Jarman was a filmmaker in the eighties famous for his overt depiction of homosexuality. Himself a homosexual living in England, he takes famous homosexuals from history and transplants them into this minimalist artistic world that is neither their time nor modern but a sometimes confusing mix of the two. He is also famous for sort of discovering Tilda Swinton and putting her androgyny on display in his films. In fact Caravaggio is Tilda’s film debut.
This film focuses on Caravaggio’s love triangle with a young boxer and his prostitute girlfriend. There are many displays of manly bravado that belay their affection for one another. In one scene, the boxer and Caravaggio engage in a light blade fight and they strike each other playfully making bleeding slits here and there. Caravaggio is surprised at this young man’s gruffness, but he is also intrigued. Slowly he also develops an affection toward the girlfriend but it will never be close to the way he feels for the boxer.
The film also highlights experiences from Caravaggio’s past as realized by a gruff youth with a cockney accent. It goes through his rough times as a child prostitute, than acquiring a patron and finally to his death-bed being attended by his faithful mute assistant.
What is most striking about this film is art direction. Jarman was a painter and he depicts the famous paintings that Caravaggio with a touch of the surreal accuracy. Nothing is shot outside. Everything has this sort seediness and grunginess that you feel you have on you by the end of the film. The characters wear leather jackets, work on modern cars, type on typewriters and have distinctly English accents.
I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you are interested in Jarman. The viewing of this film can sometimes be jarring and confusing if you are not familiar with his devices and favorite flourishes that become more apparent and developed in his later films. I think it is worth a watch in order to discover the dirty beautifulness that Jarman was so good at, but the plot can feel a little muddled sometimes. I would suggest watching the documentary that Tilda did on him from a couple of years ago and then pick at random what grabs at you. I started with Blue and I highly recommend that film. I would save this film for the middle. You will appreciate more if you do.