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on 31 May 2017
Grim and confusing
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on 19 January 2008
Quite simply unlike any other biographical film you will ever see, Derek Jarman's acclaimed production of Caravaggio (1986) is a lovingly constructed, highly personal cross-reference of tormented sixteenth century genius, twentieth century iconography and a somewhat satire on the shallowness of the burgeoning eighties' art scene of which Jarman was very much part of. Exploring Caravaggio's life through his work, the film distinctively merges fact, fiction, legend and imagination in a bold and confident approach that will probably leave serious art enthusiasts and casual viewers outraged by the complete disregard for accurate, historical storytelling.

Shot with a typically avant-garde approach, director/writer Jarman doesn't so much fashion a biography of the artist, but rather, creates a personal reflection of the man using intimate characteristics that appeal to his filmmaking sensibilities. This makes Caravaggio more of an interpretation of the filmmaker than the artist himself; somewhat self-indulgently focusing on Caravaggio's struggle with bisexuality, perfectionism and wanton obsession; perhaps even glossing over the more intricate workings of the character, for instance, his own passion for art and his battles with the various religious and creative constraints of the period.

It's a shame some of these ideas aren't further elaborated upon, because, at its heart, Caravaggio is really an exceptional film. As I commented earlier, it's perhaps unlike any other film you will ever see; an iconoclastic vision with a cinematic imagination that knows no bounds. Caravaggio is a film in which a 16th century setting gives way to the various anachronisms of passing trains, tuxedoes, motorbikes, typewriters and chic nightclub settings. It is a film in which every frame is rendered in reference to the artist's work, composed with rich, shadowy colours that bring to mind the contrast between fresh and rotting fruit, and an unrivalled interplay between sound and production design that is reminiscent in its intense savagery of two dogs angrily ripping each other to pieces.

There is no other 'based on fact film' that has demonstrated such a wild and evocative recreation of real-life hysteria and events, with the possible exception of Peter Jackson's masterful Heavenly Creatures (1994) or even some of Jarman's subsequent projects like Edward II (1991) and Wittgenstein (1994). With a cast of now very well known faces, such as Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton, Michael Gough, Dexter Fletcher and Robbie Coltrane - not to mention some of the most beautiful photography ever committed to film - Caravaggio represents an impressive and enjoyable combination of art and cinema that is now, twenty years on, ripe for rediscovery.
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on 31 March 2017
Some good bits but generally not for me
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 29 September 2013
A few points: The paintings shown in the film don't look like Caravaggios, being much rougher (perhaps like early Cezanne); the similarity has been displaced onto the photography itself; the style of the film is like a cross between Terence Davies and Querelle; Sean Bean is very sexy as a personality and in his loincloth, stuffing coins in his mouth; although Jarman admired Pasolini hugely his own film is the opposite in its studio set-up, where Pasolini always filmed in real settings; Pasolini might well have put Dexter Fletcher in a film if he'd been around; the anachronistic details are in a playful spirit although it's not that playful a film otherwise; the mute Jerusaleme's face and emotions make a poignant counterweight to the dying artist.
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on 9 January 2011
This movie is hard to get into, and it jumps around quite a lot through the artist's life. Throughout the movie there are some amazing set pieces that recreate the artist's famous paintings in minute detail, and these alone make the movie worth watching if you like Caravaggio's work. Created on extremely low budget, it's amazing what imagination and fine acting can do.
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VINE VOICEon 24 June 2008
Beyond Caravagio's art there is very little evidence to support an in depth biographical study. What there is (principally a few police records) may or may not suggest a violent man prone to fits of jealous rage and violent behaviour. Jarman, however, provides a beautifully realised poetical interpretation, charged with a latent sexuality, that conveys a complex blend of urban poverty and aristocratic patronage. Jarman succeeds in placing a 'modern day' Caravaggio amongst his baroque compositions, recognising the artists's immense talent for the human form, light and shadow and use of colour. The acting is awesome and the sets show how a highly imaginative crew can pull together the essence of a period with grace and historical insight. Amazing.
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on 18 September 2000
every shot in this beautiful film is like one of caravaggio's paintings - a true masterpiece of cinematography. jarman shows his story telling skills off to the full, sharing his obvious fondness for the artist and his works to the extent that you feel compelled to go away and see more of his paintings for yourself after having watched this. dexter fletcher plays the young and precocious caravaggio as only one so young and precocious could, and sean bean is wonderfully spiteful and sexy as his muse. this is a film for the faint hearted art film fan - as jarman fills the film with his trademark humour eccentricities to keep you on your toes.
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In an interview in ‘Sight & Sound’, Mike Leigh talked about his film ‘Mr Turner’ and was asked about other biopics of artists. He said, “I was very fond of Derek Jarman and he made some very nice films. But ‘Caravaggio’ is profoundly boring – nothing happens. Everyone in it was busy being gorgeous.” I take his point, but profoundly disagree.

This is a review of the BFI release that comes with a booklet in which executive producer Colin MacCabe tells the story of how a high summer in seventeenth-century Italy was created in a warehouse in the East End of London. Indeed, it was having been inspired by Jarman’s clever and impressive production work on Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ – recreating seventeenth-century France in West London – that started me collecting his films.

Perhaps Mike Leigh only watched ‘Caravaggio’ once, for each time I have seen it, the view gets better and better: the viewer is drawn in deeper and starts to have a greater appreciation of the artist’s work. I still do not ‘rate’ Caravaggio paintings, but this film has certainly compelled me to re-assess his work and to question my own reactions to it.

And then, of course, there is the feast for the eyes of a young Sean Bean! And Tilda Swinton in her first film. And Spencer Leigh. And Dexter Fletcher. And indeed Nigel Terry, who is great as the artist, especially when looking back on his life from his deathbed. Whoever complained about people being gorgeous!

Mike Leigh is only half-right about nothing happening. Things do happen and sometimes they happen violently, but this is a relatively slow film. Admittedly there are a few poor edits, but Jarman did an amazing job (with Christopher Hobbs) with his production design. I can only conclude that he was a genius, a true great. Unlike some other similar directors, Jarman’s film work is firmly rooted – there is hardly any scene that mystifies. That is not to say there is ambiguous symbolism, but Jarman does not indulge his fantasies nor test his audience’s patience.

Finally, a word or two about the generous set of extras on this BFI disc. There are interviews with Nigel Terry (seven minutes); Tilda Swinton (nine); and Christopher Hobbs (eight), all three of whom assert that Derek Jarman was Caravaggio. Jarman himself appears in a seven-minute interview, but there is also an audio-track of his presence at the preview in 1986. This is quite lengthy but vitally interesting. Notably missing is any contribution from Sean Bean.

In addition, there is a commentary to the film by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. He is interesting on colouring, skin tones, framing, and the film’s lighting – or rather the film’s shadows, given Caravaggio’s fame as being the father of chiaroscuro. He also mentions how much the art of Caravaggio and Rembrandt was at the heart of his photography on the film.

There are also features on the production design itself, including reproductions of Jarman’s note books, and storyboards that show how the picture might have looked if he had had the money.
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The life of Caravaggio seen through the lens of chiaroscuro, and seen as part of a sordid world of prostitution, betrayal, vengeance, and the classic mix of wealth and extreme poverty. Enlightened by tableaux vivants of many of Caravaggio's most famous works it could perhaps have benefitted from being enlivened too: but too much dialogue and action would have taken us from the period feel (which despite the regular intrusions of anachronisms is very strong). As always with Jarman the cinematography is wonderful
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on 29 March 2011
Derek Jarman crafted a beautiful and unique work of art in "Caravaggio". Perhaps the fact that I have a great love for the work of the real Michelangelo Caravaggio, influences my judgment just a bit; It was quite enjoyable to see the paintings come to life, and to witness how they might have actually been created. In fact, much of Jarman's poetic film has the look of a lush, living painting. There is much to admire here besides the aesthetics; the talented and beautiful cast, led by Nigel Terry, the intense-looking Sean Bean, as Ranuccio, and the elegant Tilda Swinton, as Lena; the woman loved by two very passionate, and tormented men. The acting is all around excellent, but Nigel Terry as Michelangelo really stands out. He is great to watch, and brings life to a man the world knows not so much about. Also actor Dexter Fletcher was quite funny and likable in his portrayal of the younger Caravaggio.

More than a historical, biographical account of the painter, this is more the study of a classic love triangle. Caravaggio's models were mostly street people, many of them also criminals, and it seemed that he often became personally involved with his subjects. His love for 'Lena' seems to be as strong, if not stronger, than his love for 'Ranuccio'. And this divided love has tragic consequences, for all involved.

I didn't find "Caravaggio" an overly gay film, as the subject wasn't focused on obsessively, like other films of this nature tend to do. The love affair between Lena and Michelangelo was given as much attention as the relationship between him and Ranuccio. Therefore those who might feel a little uncomfortable with the subject matter, need not be, as it is actually quite accessible.

I highly recommend this poetic film, especially for admirers of the painter Caravaggio.

I hope this review has been helpful in your purchasing decision.
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