Nov 17, 2013

Caravaggio (1986)




Before becoming a filmmaker in his own right, British auteur Derek Jarman (The Last of England, In the Shadow of the Sun) worked as a production designer for English director Ken Russell (Lisztomania, Savage Messiah)—a master of fiercely flamboyant and conspicuously campy biopics of artists—so it should be no surprise that he would also tackle bawdy biographical films with an unwavering lack of respect for historical reality, with Caravaggio (1986) being his greatest tribute to a famous artist. And, indeed, like Russell’s exceedingly eccentric biopics, Caravaggio (1986) is a largely fiction-based work that emphasizes celluloid poetry and romanticism, as well as parallels between the past and present, over the documented historical record as a pomo homo work that features intentionally anachronistic scenes, including the appearance of typewriters and calculators despite being set in the 16th and 17th century. A somewhat troubled production that took a number of years to get off the ground (Jarman abandoned more film projects than he would realize) and went through countless screenplay rewrites (apparently, the screenplay was revised no less than 17 times), with Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico—a wonder woman who penned screenplays for such great Guido filmmakers as Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica, and Michelangelo Antonioni—eventually coming on and collaborating with auteur Jarman on the screenplay, Caravaggio ultimately turned out to be one of the director’s most, if not, ‘conventional’ and accessible works and in stark contrast to the minimalistic Cocteau/Genet-inspired avant-garde flick the filmmaker originally intended it to be, which is a shame, but is also in the spirit of the film itself. Indeed, despite being arguably Jarman’s most linear and least impenetrable works, Caravaggio is naturally drenched in high-camp homoeroticism of the Pasolini-esque sort that is more concerned with Mise-en-scène, tableaux, theatrically melodramatic acting performances, and aesthetic/thematic subversion than providing a docudrama-like depiction of the life and times of the eponymous protagonist. An almost recklessly fictionalized retelling about the somewhat mysterious and undeniably controversial life of Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Jarman’s Caravaggio portrays the artist as more of an anti-hero than hero, depicting him as a belligerent bisexual outlaw of sorts who killed his great love and found his greatest source of inspiration in the criminal and sexual perverted despite being his imperative connection to the Vatican. Starring Jarman’s muse Tilda Swinton (The Last of England, Orlando) in her very first screen role, as well as manly man Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, HBO’s Game of Thrones) portraying a bastard of a bisexual street fighter, Caravaggio is a perversely potent, if not uneven, reminder that Britain produced much more provocative and timeless works during the 1980s than overrated big budget feel-good filmic filth like pathetically philo-Semitic Chariots of Fire (1981) and the epically banal post-colonial cultural cuckold flick Gandhi (1982). 




 Opening with old Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) on his deathbed suffering from poisoning while in exile as his deaf-dumb slave-houseboy Jerusaleme (Spencer Leigh)—a chap who was given to the artist when he was just a wee boy by his own family—Caravaggio then cuts to the protagonist when he was a teenage hustler (portrayed by Dexter Fletcher) with an unhealthy obsession with vice and gutter-level criminality. Making a humble living hustling old perverts out of their money and pulling his dagger out on said perverts when need be, Caravaggio was eventually discovered by cocksucking Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough) while bedridden at a Catholic hospital. Offended by the fact that teenage Caravaggio’s dagger blade has “No Hope, No Fear” engraved on it, Del Monte still decides to act as a mentor of sorts for the young con as he believes the bad boy has artistic talent, not to mention the fact the holy man is an unholy pederast who finds the little lad rather appealing. After his teenage twink years and coming of age under the sexual and artistic nurturing of Del Monte, Caravaggio grows up to be an artist who, despite still living under the roof of the creepy Cardinal, has a naughty knack for painting religious portraits using quasi-drag-adorned gay prostitutes, winos, and other stunning street rabble as models. A brazenly bisexual brawler, gambler, drunkard, and rebel rouser who sleeps with everyone from his retarded houseboy Jerusaleme and a female contortionist named Pipo (Dawn Archibald)—both of whom have acted as models for his paintings—Caravaggio is a rather unlikely person to be a semi-official artist for the Vatican, so naturally his days are more or less numbered. One rather fateful day, a handsome street fighter named Ranuccio (Sean Bean) catches Caravaggio as the artist wants the young man for both a lover and model, but the problem is that the brawling blond beast has a girlfriend named Lena (Tilda Swinton), who also catches the artist’s fancy. Naturally, a bizarre baroque love triangle brews with ultimately brutal results. Both Ranuccio and Lena end up bedding Caravaggio and both become rather jealous of each other as a result. After Lena becomes pregnant by an unnamed fellow, she proudly confesses she plans to become the mistress to the wealthy Scipione Borghese (Robbie Coltrane), but not long after, she is murdered via drowning by a dubious party. Wasting no time to paint an exotic subject, Caravaggio paints Lena’s exquisite corpse whilst weeping. Not surprisingly, Ranuccio is arrested for the murder, but Caravaggio uses his connection with the Vatican to talk to the Pope (portrayed by Jarman regular, blind Gypsy mime Jack Birkett) and he gets the young street fighter freed not long after. Unfortunately for him, Ranuccio makes the idiotic mistake of confessing to Caravaggio upon his release from prison that he did indeed kill Lena and that he did it so they could be together. More than a tad bit infuriated by the situation, Caravaggio slits Ranuccio’s throat after the dullard makes his murder confession. In the end, Caravaggio comes full circle with the eponymous character lying on his deathbed dying as he respectfully refuses the last rites offered by Catholic priests. 




 Described by John Russell Taylor of Sight & Sound, “By the standards normal in British cinema, Caravaggio is an enterprise of extraordinary daring and resonance, carried out with a single mindedness – and sheer efficiency – which cannot be faulted. By the standard of Bresson or Pasolini, unfortunately, it remains all too suggestive of love amongst the waxworks. The breathe of life is somehow missing,” Caravaggio is indeed far from auteur Derek Jarman’s masterpiece as a work that seems shockingly softcore and even self-censored when compared to the director’s greatest works like Jubilee (1977), The Angelic Conversation (1985), and The Last of England (1988), yet it is still a captivating film nonetheless that, using the lurid life of Caravaggio as a parallel, demonstrates the filmmaker’s own dilemmas as a cinematic artist working in a country where serious celluloid iconoclasm is next to nonexistent. Indeed, it seems that Jarman himself was even disappointed by Caravaggio in retrospect as the director’s biographer Tony Peake wrote in Derek Jarman: A Biography (2000) that, “Watching the film a year later in Rome, he found it ‘too assured’ and could hardly believe it was his,” which is not exactly the way any artist wants to remember his work, especially considering it was the film the auteur spent the most time creating as a cinematic piece that was in pre-production for years. Still, Jarman’s Caravaggio managed to receive the Silver Bear for an ‘outstanding single achievement’ at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival, which is no surprise since the director’s films were typically better received in krautland and the auteur even made a number of threats that he planned to work in Germany as opposed to suffering the sterile censorship of merry olde England. Personally, I found Caravaggio to be Jarman’s least enthralling and provocative work, as the sort of quasi-lackluster flick that I have no intention of ever re-watching, at least any time soon, yet with that being said, the work is—for better or worse—one of the best biopics I have ever seen on a painter. Undoubtedly, in its depiction of maestro Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio as a sort of innately incendiary and iconoclastic proto-punk figure who managed to aesthetically assault the Vatican with his decidedly decadent paintings yet still managed to get funded by the Catholic Church, Jarman’s Caravaggio manages to contradict the Pope character’s statement, “Never heard of a revolution made with paint brushes.” Most importantly, Jarman’s Caravaggio successfully manages to make the ancient plight of Caravaggio palatable for today’s viewers, demonstrating that there were always Pasolinis and Jarmans who somehow managed to make a system that was totally against their lifestyles work in their favor, at least to some extent. Indeed, in the end, Jarman’s Caravaggio is more about the perennial spirit of the subversive artist than a factually fateful Caravaggio biopic, which is certainly something I can respect.  Like a Werner Schroeter flick made accessible for the masses, it is no surprise that Caravaggio would go on to be Jarman's most popular work, which is a shame, but at least unlike other avant-garde filmmakers, the director's oeuvre has not been condemned to the celluloid dustbin of history.



-Ty E

11 comments:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

On the DVD cover Dexter Fletcher looks like the quintessential example of "A BLOODY DIRTY LITTLE FAIRY" ! ! !.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Although hes worthless British garbage Dexter Fletcher is at least rampagingly heterosexual which is one redeeming factor obviously, he should there-fore be thoroughly ashamed of himself for making a film alongside a disgusting and hideous faggot like Derek Jar-girl. He should`ve been beating that queer bastard up, not acting in one of his films ! ! !.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Ty E, to say that Britain produced better films than Hollywood (at any time in the last 124 years) is totally absurd and ludicrous, you know that, you should be bloody-well ashamed of yourself for saying it ! ! !. British made films are a fucking ludicrous and pathetic joke in comparison to the breathtaking magnificence of the Hollywood product, never forget that, OK.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Sean Bean is British and straight, so half Rubbish and half OK (as it were), just like Fletcher. Its amazing how heterosexual actors are able to degrade and demean themselves (for the supposed sake of 'their art') by being on the same film set as filth like Jar-girl.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Robbie Coltrane is a worthless Scottish cunt (although i do of course respect his rampaging heterosexuality).

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Tilda Swinton (as the bird was in 1978 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously), even if she is British garbage and a dirty turn-coat, queer loving, fag-hag, fag-enabling bitch.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

But Ty E, this directors oeuvre will be (thankfully) condemned to the celluloid dustbin of history, because this director was a dirty filthy disgusting FAGGOT ! ! !.

jimmie t. murakami said...

Ken Russells best film was "Altered States" (1980), a film he made IN AMERICA ! ! !, i rest my case.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I think Ken Russell was straight, so it would`ve been really difficult for him as well to have a hideous fairy like Jar-girl on the same set.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

The British film industry has always been an ocean of pretentious faggots who`ve never had any interest what-so-ever in entertaining people.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Comparing the breathtaking magnificence of the Hollywood product to the laughable pathetic ineptitude of the British film industry is literally like comparing a bar of gold to a pile of dog-shit ! ! !.