SCREEN: 'CARAVAGGIO,' A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
By WALTER GOODMAN
Published: August 29, 1986
FROM the paintings of Michelangelo Amerighi da Caravaggio, Derek Jarman, a British director and scriptwriter, has dreamed up a life of the rough-living painter of the late Italian Renaissance, who died in 1610, still in his 30's, full of honors and scandals. The adventurous exhibition opens today at Cinema 3.
Mr. Jarman, a painter himself, presents the story in a series of unstill lifes that begin with Caravaggio on his deathbed in a bare room attended by a devoted mute, and jumps, at times perplexingly, back into the artist's childhood, his career and, especially, his relations with a tough named Ranuccio and a prostitute named Lena whom both men love, but perhaps not as much as they love each other.
All the scenes are indoors - the movie was shot in a London warehouse on a budget of $475,000. The camera of Gabriel Beristain catches the feel of Caravaggio's work, notably the ultra-dramatic lighting that comes out of nowhere, turning the realistic types whom Caravaggio favored into figures with little connection to the real world.
This air of unreal realism is carried into the dialogue, which moves from earthy colloquial to pseudo-poetic -''Saltwater drips from my fingers leaving a trail of tears on the burning sands.'' And to confound matters further, the characters manage to exist at once both in Renaissance Italy and in the present; they operate clanking typewriters and thumb through glossy magazines, as the background music changes to suit the period. Caravaggio and Ranuccio, about whom little is known other than that the artist actually murdered a man with that name in a knife fight, ride motorcycles and fix trucks. If they were alive today, Mr. Jarman seems to be telling us, they would probably be hanging around with the Hell's Angels.
All this produces striking moments; the movie is a pleasure to look at and its disjointedness is a way of seizing what Mr. Jarman apparently conceives to be the wild leaps of Caravaggio's imagination. Less fortunately, the venturesome design is put at the service of a pulp tale of two male lovers, in a mainly homosexual and very violent milieu, falling out over a woman. 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, and in another the two men smear each other with blood as a sign of their deep and ultimately fatal passion. Such carryings on are rather much for so paltry a story - opera without the music.
As Caravaggio, Nigel Terry is obliged to spend a lot of his time, when he is not on his deathbed, staring at the models he is about to transform into art. (''Man's character is in his face,'' he reports.) There's nothing wrong with Mr. Terry's face or with the face of Sean Bean, who makes a sexy-tough Ranuccio, but neither has been endowed by Mr. Jarman with much character. Michael Gough lends his familiar and expressive face to the role of Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal Del Monte.
''Caravaggio'' is an experiment in excess, but with enough flashes of ingenuity and visual brilliance to repay a visit. RENAISSANCE MAN: CARAVAGGIO, written and directed by Derek Jarman; photography by Gabriel Beristain; edited by George Akers; music by Simon Fisher Turner; produced by Sarah Radclyffe; released by the British Film Institute. At Cinema 3, 2 West 59th Street. Running time: 93 minutes. This film has no rating. Caravaggio...Nigel Terry; Ranuccio...Sean Bean; Davide...Garry Cooper; Jerusaleme...Spencer Leigh; Lena...Tilda Swinton; Cardinal Del Monte...Michael Gough.
August 29, 1986