Derek Jarman's "Caravaggio" (at Beverly Center Cineplex) is a kinky ode to chiaroscuro and the dark side of the Renaissance, a luxuriantly eccentric look at the Bad-Boy-as-Artist.
It's a film that rhapsodizes over the textures of paint and the textures of flesh--and the passions that join them together. It's concerned not with art of proprieties and perfect proportions, but with art at the end of its tether: a messy, squalid ferment from which the painter tries to distill something sublime (as Caravaggio was said to fashion portraits of saints and divines by posing ruffians and Roman prostitutes).
That's the paradox. It's a backstage glimpse of the Renaissance, where sexual sweat and blood mix with the cobalt blue, where dirt stains the cathedral marble. Getting flamboyant effects from minimal resources, mixing up symbols and icons of the past and present (pocket calculators and motorcycles pop up in 16th-Century Rome), Jarman gives us a meticulously posed but reeking world, fumey with filth, aestheticism and carnal desires.
In the midst of it, his Caravaggio becomes an anachronism--a bisexual painter puffing on cigarettes, lecherously eyeing his models and stuffing gold pieces into their leering mouths. The fetid surroundings--rotten with disease, criminality and death--are partly transcended by the radiant chiaroscuro illumining his canvases and the frames of the movie. (Caravaggio, pioneer of chiaroscuro, is in some ways the patron saint of cinematographers, from Gregg Toland to Vittorio Storaro.) Impassioned, cynical, self-destructive, he bathes his models (and sexual partners) in light until the expressions change, the poses alter. Murderers become saints, sluts become madonnas.
The actual Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is a plausibly scandalous figure. He died in exile in Naples after killing a friend over a prostitute. But Jarman's is a highly personal view: He attributes homosexuality to Caravaggio, mostly by deducing temperament from the paintings and reading between the lines of history. He's obviously blending idealized conceptions with intense identification: Most of his own films ("Sebastiane," "Jubilee") are flamboyantly homosexual in content and treatment.
And, equally, Jarman blends aestheticism and low life. The whole movie is built out of shocking juxtapositions: serenity and filth, a dialectic of high and low, sublime and sordid.
It's a good film, but it won't be to every taste. Jarman, once a set designer for Ken Russell ("The Devils"), has been a painter himself, and he gets across the feel and texture of painting--the touch of oils--far better than most respectful documentaries or artist-bios you could name ("Caravaggio" bears the same relation to most of them that Russell's composer-bios bear to "Song of Norway").
The cast, an unusually strong one, headed by Nigel Terry, plays the roles with swaggering abandon, and the cinematography (by Gabriel Beristain) and art direction--for a sub-million-dollar production--is little short of a miracle.
The main flaw, perhaps, is the flaw of many movies about great painters, from Korda's "Rembrandt" to Huston's "Moulin Rouge." The painter is seen as a victim, and tragedy is suggested by the fact that he never receives the money his paintings will later earn. If Jarman doesn't quite avoid that empty irony, he also leaves a sentimental edge: self-pity dulling his knifelike iconoclasm.
But if Caravaggio were a painter mad to paint, Jarman is a film maker mad to film. In both cases, passion commands your respect.