Caravaggio Review

In 1610, the painter Caravaggio lies in bed in his death throes and feverishly looks back on a life of love, drunken brawling and dangerous passions – one where he would be forced to flee Rome after killing a man – a life which would feed into the extraordinary paintings he would create for patrons and the Church. As depicted by Derek Jarman in his 1986 film Caravaggio, it’s a curious, unconventional and non-linear look at the life of the painter – one that does not altogether fit in with commonly held biographical accounts of the late-Renaissance Baroque artist, but rather fits in more with Jarman’s own attitude towards life and art.

Before he came to make the film, Jarman knew little about Caravaggio’s paintings and life. Commissioned by art dealer Nicholas Ward-Jackson to write a script however, Jarman, originally a painter himself, immediately identified with Caravaggio’s irreverence and sense of abandon as the bad boy of Renaissance art. Even his commissioned paintings of religious subjects were scandalously composed using beggars, prostitutes and rent boys as models, and would display a certain sense of homoeroticism (one that the playwright Frank McGuinness would also draw on for his 1987 play based on Caravaggio, Innocence). It would take much longer however for Jarman to bring his cherished project to the screen, and it would be almost seven years before the financing could be raised in 1986 from the BFI and C4, two parties at the time who were supportive of independent and experimental British filmmaking.

The creative possibilities of the fusing together of the right circumstances and people is what would inspire Jarman to work, and much of it would come together on Caravaggio, the director’s first proper feature film (following as it did the controversial film experimentation of Sebastiane and Jubilee), introducing him to people who would become regular members of the Jarman group – the actress Tilda Swinton (in her first film role), production designer Christopher Hobbs and costume designer Sandy Powell. Jarman’s approach then, it would seem, would be to let these people loose on the subject and see whether his irreverent approach would match and draw forth something more meaningful from the life of Caravaggio than the standard biopic. To some extent, Jarman succeeds, but the approach is hit-and-miss and not always easy for the outside viewer who is not part of Jarman’s little troupe to relate to.

All art is against lived experience. How can you compare flesh and blood with oil and pigment” complains Nigel Terry’s Caravaggio at one point in the film, and therein you have the essence of Jarman’s take on the painter, his attitude towards life and art and his attempt to fuse them together, taking the gritty realism of the lowest peasants on the streets and endowing them with the qualities of the most elevated religious icons. One is incomplete without the other and Jarman blends both together, not just creating tableaux vivants of Caravaggio’s paintings or merely animating them, but transferring the exuberant, fleshy qualities of his paintings into Caravaggio’s life. In production terms, the effect is remarkable, perfectly capturing the tone, the light and the colour of the paintings, but Jarman also brings out what he senses are their character, their inner life and meaning – art and life inseparable and indistinguishable.

Seeing Caravaggio struggling to represent his life in his paintings, Jarman not only reverses the process and brings the paintings back to life, as a more conventional approach to biographical film might, but fuses them through his own artistic nature onto celluloid, adding his own vision and personality into them, “trapping pure spirit in matter”. Hence we see anachronistic elements creep into the film, a cardinal tapping on a pocket calculator, Sean Bean’s Ranuccio working on a motorbike, and a critic of Caravaggio’s work writing a piece on a typewriter, Death of Marat-style in a bathtub. Attempting to recreate Renaissance Italy in the London dockyards, Jarman would however use actual sound elements recorded in Italy, with the resulting soundtrack containing the noise of phones, planes and cars. All this of course is likely to irritate purists and it doesn’t always convince, but it is a valid approach - faithful to the work, or at least to a personal interpretation of it - that is a welcome experiment compared to the otherwise sterile treatments that usually characterise this genre of filmmaking.

Caravaggio is released in the UK by the BFI. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

The quality of the print elements would not appear to be pristine, but this is a good transfer nonetheless, presented anamoprhically at 1.85:1. There is a little bit of grain and some brightness flicker throughout – either from the print itself or from its telecine transfer. Colours however are rich, if a touch reddish, and with the lighting levels they accurately approximate the tone of a Caravaggio painting. Sharpness and detail is good, even in wider shots, which show reasonably fine information. Shadow detail is reasonably good, even if blacks are not always strong or consistent. The print itself seems to be free from even the smallest of marks or scratches, and any digital issues with compression appear to be well contained.

The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is relatively strong. It can be a little echoing, tending to reverberate and be somewhat noisy on louder passages, and some dialogue consequently isn’t the clearest. In the main however, the soundtrack is clear with no underlying issues.

Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear white font, with an option for Hard of Hearing captions to be included. Dutch subtitles are also included. The extra features are also optionally subtitled in English for everything including the commentary.

In addition to the booklet which reprints the relevant section of Colin MacCabe’s recent Sight and Sound article on Jarman, includes a detailed biography and an interview with Costume Designer Sandy Powell, the disc is well-equipped with supplemental features.

The Commentary is by Gabriel Beristan, the cinematographer on the film, who regards it as “the greatest experience of my whole, entire life”. He gives an interesting and perhaps the more relevant perspective on the film – on the sets, the lighting, the compositions, and how they achieved the essential tone of the film. There are a few other details on the nature of working with Jarman and the cast, Beristan giving some indication on the amount of thought and preparation that had gone into the look and meaning of every scene in the film.

New Interviews have been conducted with Nigel Terry (6:45) who, in contrast to the considered approach to the film’s design and setting, attests to Jarman’s “gonzo filmmaking” on-set improvisations, which he found “a hoot” to work on; Tilda Swinton (8:46), who confirms the creatively productive atmosphere of abandon on the set and talks about being part of the Jarman troupe; and Christopher Hobbs (8:18), who talks about the difficulties of financing the film, how they created an “Italy of the memory” rather than a strictly realist one, and explains the use of the anachronistic elements in the film.

From the archives we have Derek Jarman in conversation with Simon Field (6:32), talking about Caravaggio (as part of a longer interview) and his approach to making the film. A non-professional audio recording of Derek Jarman interviewed by Derek Malcolm was recorded at the NFT in 1986 at an early screening of the film. It’s a bit rough, but informative nonetheless and worthy of inclusion here.

Under the Production Design section are extensive excerpts from Jarman’s Notebooks, containing handwritten notes, sketches and prints referenced in the film, beautifully illustrated Production Documentation for costumes and set designs, remarkably detailed Storyboards, which show a different film entirely in much more traditional costumes and locations and, under Jarman in the Frame, some beautiful sketches.

The extra features are rounded out with an anamorphic Trailer (1:41) and a Photo Gallery.

The style and content of Derek Jarman’s films will not appeal to everyone, and there are certainly elements in Caravaggio that confuse and seem designed to do nothing more than provoke controversy, but his approach to making a film about the painter feels appropriate and does succeed to a large extent in conveying the essence of the connection between life, love and art, both through Caravaggio’s work and through Jarman’s own personal take on it. The BFI – increasingly re-inventing themselves as our closest equivalent to the US Criterion Collection – present the film on DVD well, with a full set of supporting features that will be appreciated both by fans of Jarman and those who wish to understand his work better.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:20:05

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