You probably wouldn’t call British painter-filmmaker Derek Jarman a mainstream figure, especially if you watched Wittgenstein, his stark 1993 film on the eponymous philosopher, when we posted it last year. But in 1986, when he took on the life and work of Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi o Amerighi da Caravaggio, he produced what the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver calls his “most ambitious attempt at cracking the mainstream market: while his special cocktail of performance art, gay erotica, and technical experimentation was perhaps never destined for a mass audience, the film is arguably his most accessible and substantial achievement.” And indeed, it takes a relatively traditional form, at least by Jarman’s standard: the dying Caravaggio, played by Nigel Terry, remembers chapters of his life, from his early artistic development, to his years under the wing of a Cardinal, to the time he had to appeal to the Pope to free a male lover from the charge of murdering a female one.
You may have guessed that even if Caravaggio adheres to a structure less daring than those Jarman usually built, it remains plenty daring in terms of content. Jarman depicts the painter as familiar with the high art world and the social underworld alike, recruiting undesirable types straight off the street as models for his religious canvasses. Though Caravaggio doesn’t come off as an out-and-out hedonist, the film does imply that the well-worn joke about “trisexuality” applies to him — i.e., that he’ll “try” anything. As in Wittgenstein, Jarman casts Tilda Swinton, here in her very first film role as one the vertices of Caravaggio’s troubled love triangle. As the other, we have Sean Bean, well before he, too, rose to the heights of movie stardom. Look beyond the players, and you’ll also notice touches that echo Caravaggio’s own tendencies toward visual anachronism, including cigarettes, automobiles, and even a typewriter. For these and other reasons, we may not remember Caravaggio as an actual mainstream movie, but we do remember Jarman as a filmmaker simply unable not to make interesting choices.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.