Calling Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) the director’s most-accessible film is deceptive, even while being true. That’s a totally relative judgment that places the film within a larger, more inaccessible set of works. This is a biopic of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (variously played by Nigel Terry, Derek Fletcher and Noam Almaz), but it’s a biopic in strictly Jarman terms. For the uninitiated, Jarman’s films are a little like Ken Russell’s—on some of whose films Jarman worked as designer and with whom Jarman was a good friend—but that’s a comparison that only goes so far, because there are more differences than similarities, especially in tone. To say that the often-dark world of Jarman’s film contains little of Russell’s playfulness is perhaps an understatement. And that’s certainly true of Caravaggio, a deliberately anachronistic work that presents the painter first as a kind of artistic street boy (Noam Almaz, who looks like a young Mick Jagger), then as a young man (Derek Fletcher) and an older one (Nigel Terry). Jarman’s Caravaggio is presented with what can only be called a taste for “rough trade”—all the while stringing along a lecherous old Cardinal (Michael Gough), who serves as his protector and supporter. It’s a dark, deeply homoerotic film that is somehow never as much fun as it feels like its wild flights of fancy should have made it, but that’s part and parcel of Jarman. It is, however, absolutely gorgeous to look at with its imagery—meant to look like the artist’s paintings—which it often achieves to an astonishing degree.
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