Director: Derek Jarman
Writer: Suso Cecchi d'Amico (uncredited), Nicholas Ward Jackson,Derek Jarman
Composer: Simon Fisher-Turner
AFI Rank: -
BFI Rank: 93
If the BFI is looking for quotes to put on its upcoming Blu Ray release of Caravaggio may I humbly suggest they go with “Like Watching Paint Dry!” (Crucial Cinema).
Cheap jokes aside, much of this movie does actually involve watching paint dry but more on that later. You cannot fault Jarman for his vision and direction. What he manages to put on film is the life of Caravaggio in Caravaggio’s own style. Many scenes are delivered as if directly from one of his paintings giving it the feeling of a filmed stage production, with Caravaggio himself painting that same scene in many cases (hence the unique opportunity to watch paint dry). A passing familiarity with Caravaggio’s work while not essential will definitely let you get more out of this picture than you otherwise would. Recognizing why for example he is holding a painted Medussa shield in an early scene.
This all results in Caravaggio’s life being delivered almost as a passion play, and perhaps fittingly so. It plays to both Caravaggio’s life and the religious content which was the subject of most of his works.
It is for all those reasons I can see why it made the BFI Top 100, especially if voted for by those who saw it when it originally came out. Unfortunately for me that doesn’t make it an enjoyable film to watch. It has a decidedly eighties made for channel 4 feel about it and perhaps being from that generation I just find it more cringworthy than the older or younger viewer might. The real issue for me is the performances. These are all great actors in their debut or at least very earliest roles and although we all love their work now it is a little hard to watch here. Sean Bean is especially painful to watch. The stand out performance comes from Nigel Terry as Caravaggio himself, perhaps because of the theater like nature of the production.
Although Caravaggio received only a couple of film festival awards it does deserve it’s place in film history. Ultimately for me however it is simply not Crucial Cinema and if you have not seen it then I don’t suggest you go out of your way to do so.