Caravaggio – Dirty Pirate

23 September, 2022

The debut performance of Tilda Swinton sees her thrown into the role of a prostitute who is at the whims of artists. Discovering something of a muse in her, Derek Jarman starts to affirm himself, in his 1986 “Caravaggio”, as the damned poet of genial lumpenproletarians. 

We take a man whose life is “movie material” –  a historical personality that never ceases to fascinate. Then we take a man who, despite knowing the possibilities of the camera inside out, still doesn’t know what “a film” is – because all his films look like something else: like a tragedy, an experiment, a crazed poem, no heads, and no tails. From the life of Caravaggio, Derek Jarman brushes history away and only retains fascination. A moment that is always present, continuous, taking over this old tale, never letting it go. The film that comes out of it is neither a faithful biopic – for the painter leans against a military truck at times, and his enemies browse glossy magazines with reproductions of the paintings –, nor is it an update – for the language of fire is archaic, and clothes are nothing more than mere rags found in some drawer. Jarman is radical through the very refusal of posing as such and of thus fixing himself within a trend. On the contrary, this “neither, or” suits him perfectly: it brings with it the atmosphere of a theater adaptation – it all gives the impression of props and stage(ing) –, to the same degree to which it pushes Caravaggio into the realm of playing hide-and-seek with the eras, the discourses, the politics of art. Jarman has as much in common with Cocteau as he has with Welles: everything (the monumental atmosphere, the intensity, the constant invention) and nothing at all (a sort of nihilism takes hold over the film, in the end, turning it into a shimmering powder, a sublime and gratuitous effort that dissolves away).

Caravaggio is a messy collage: anachronism intervenes unexpectedly, the image merrily juggles with all sorts of styles, passing from bold pictorialism to blasphemous, Brechtian impulse: was it all but an illusion? Derek Jarman models the film with the same creative frenzy that the textualists used to model the text: by seeking out a precision of the effect (a craft) which nowadays is stunning as an artifact, in and of itself, doubled by a stunning beauty that transforms everything into a flex – „I’m playing because I can”. Just like the better ones in the group, Jarman is interesting and capable of stirring passion to this very day, whereas the films of one Peter Greenaway, too pretentious and hollow, have long been forgotten. More than just his tragical destiny was at play: the films themselves, in their fertile erraticness, intrigue over and over again. Seen nowadays Caravaggio is, first of all, an experience and an experiment,  and then a political film brimming with immediacy. Twice over, if regarded in context: first, because it practices subversiveness smack in the middle of the era of retro nostalgia, coming back towards the eighties laden with rage at Thatcher’s anti-social regime; and then, because it raises identity to the status of religion, only for it to then hijack, mutilate, and recompose, gracefully sliding between genders and orientations, towards a present in which all of the above is threatened with becoming pure trends and reflexes.

Caravaggio
Caravaggio

Tilda Swinton pays a pivotal role in this incendiary ballet: with her androgynous air and something that seems untouched by age (something that Sally Potter understood well in Orlando), with her unnaturally pale visage, Swinton is a person – better said, creature – that embodies contradiction, mix, and remix, the poetry of transfer and coupling. Only the fact of having discovered this future famous face of world cinema already transforms Jarman into a grand filmmaker. But I also enjoy it because, in the ocean of films on class and contemporary malaise that swamped British cinema in the eighties, coming in from the opposition – some of them excellent: like Davies, Leigh, Frears –, Jarman refused to adhere to the trend, accepting it: he wasn’t overtly political, but rather, discovering the picaresque, historical, picturesque which inhabit the political, and which he could not downplay. Many of those around him regarded lumpenproletarians with compassion, but none went as far as Jarman, who admired them fully, and who let their vagrant aura contaminate them. Caravaggio’s (Nigel Terry) braggadocio doesn’t work without the sexual attraction that he abundantly exudes, and the theater of cruelty and camp within the film is credible only if we can feel how it is traversed by pheromones, piercing stares, bodily shapes, forever imprinted upon it. Jarman has this gift. 

Five years later, with Edward II, Jarman would take another step in the direction of frontal conflict: there, we see men holding pro-LGBT signs, silently protesting against a generalissimo clad with a fascist bonnet. And that happens without the film, charmed by the mirage of direct discourse, forgetting about its figurative powers, which gracefully mixed the gestures of yesterday (the wielding of a sword) and today (a slight dance step), out of fear of being in any way classifiable. The seeds of this freedom are already germinating in Caravaggio. Some of the formal tricks employed there seem to have rusted meanwhile (temporal bridges that transform, for example, a papal soiree into a potential rave), while others, meanwhile overused, have become somewhat of a norm (the exploration of a gay subconscious to critically revise the past). But it’s clear to me that the film belongs solely to its own time, and that’s great: its spontaneous elan, its hesitative gestures, which makes it paradoxically delicate, like the sensation of a first time, of an experience that is not yet worn down, cobbled together with what was on hand, would sound fake in the lesser-innocent times of today.

Caravaggio can be streamed on MUBI.



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Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.