When experimental director Derek Jarman was serving as production designer on 1973’s The Devils, that film’s director, Ken Russell, was already established as a radical master of the biopic, turning historical and pop culture personalities into grist for his own obsessions and visual quirks. Oddly, it took Jarman over a decade to try his hand at the same approach with Caravaggio, a visually overwhelming examination of the famous painter who redefined the use of light in painting and scandalized the church by portraying sacred figures as dirty, commonplace peasants. Of course, the painter’s life was no less remarkable; a ruffian prone to fighting, gambling, and copulating apparently every waking moment he wasn’t holding a paintbrush, Caravaggio could be read in many ways as a prototype for today’s modern celebrity.
Told in a fragmented structure as recollections on the painter’s deathbed, the story follows Caravaggio from boyhood to adulthood (played through most of the film by Excalibur’s Nigel Terry). The crux of the film lies in his relationship with fighter Ranuccio (The Lord of the Rings’ Sean Bean), the object of Caravaggio’s lust, and the ruffian’s girlfriend, Lena (Jarman regular Tilda Swinton), with whom he becomes involved in a destructive and ultimately violent threesome. We also see how the artist’s youth was affected by an encounter with the Cardinal (horror favorite Michael Gough), who cautions him that his controversial work and behavior may have nasty implications, while the rest of church itself (represented by a young Robbie Coltrane!) is less than pleased with the hellraiser’s antics.
Arguably the director’s most approachable film, Caravaggio feels like a work more concerned with tone and texture than storytelling. The narrative does move in a coherent fashion if one is paying attention, but the succession of ravishing images ultimately overwhelms the senses to the extent that any character development is secondary. Jarman’s usual idiosyncracies are in evidence, such as his injection of period anachronisms (modern formal dress, typewriters, and so on) at odd moments to provide modern analogies; however, the table-slamming politics which ultimately came to the forefront in Edward II (complete with a modern pride parade) are kept in check here in favor of a more subtle study of vascillating sexuality and the destructive nature of the human impulse. The acting is unusually passionate for Jarman, with the three leads all doing some of their most striking work; while Swinton and Bean have ultimately proven themselves many times over since, it’s a shame Terry has mostly been relegating to supporting roles and TV work.(from mondo-digital.com)