Revisiting Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio

If you wanted to seem sophisticated in the 1980s, you went to see a Derek Jarman film – and his 1986 biopic of the baroque painter Caravaggio was a landmark in his recognition as a major director.

5 April 2018

By William Fowler

Caravaggio (1986)

Beautifully lit, vibrant with colour, and carefully, if minimally, designed, Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) has an immediate aesthetic appeal that links it more easily with the history of arthouse filmmaking than his other, more jagged, rough-and-ready works. Its release in the latter half of the 1980s also meant it found audiences just when the grimy, more overtly politicised post-punk era (with the miners’ strike and the repression of new age travellers) had begun to pass.

Jarman’s film was entirely opposed to the new era and the corrupt, moneyed cardinals in the film (one using a 1980s electronic calculator, no less) signalled his resistance, but the wider world was now ready for an articulate, multi-faceted, literary and pictorial film artist, and both he and Peter Greenaway assumed notable public profiles. If you wanted to seem sophisticated, you went to see one of their films.

Caravaggio (1986)

For all its relative smoothness and brightness, the background to Caravaggio, however, was varied and long-standing, with ideas changing over time. At one point Jarman and the artistic director Christopher Hobbs were to have also appeared as a framing device, discussing their practical intentions and designs, and in 1985, the year before Caravaggio’s release, Jarman remarked:

“people tend to think that history is immutable, that there is something called reality. Reality is what interests me – that image of reality in Caravaggio. Why is a Ken Loach film more real than a Ken Russell film? And why is Italian neorealism more real than Michael Powell? For me the answer is that they aren’t. I actually see the news on television as fiction. People say ‘reality’, but what they forget is that the streets they walk through come out of people’s imagination, and are not real in that sense.”

It was otherworldly stuff to get your head around, and signalled Jarman’s interest in metaphysical pathology and his influence on postmodern thinking.

The film is about the world as represented in Caravaggio’s paintings, and was made to look just like them. Jarman clearly identified with the reputedly gay renaissance painter, who had an ambiguous relationship with his patrons and instead preferred to mix with and paint the people from the street.

Tilda Swinton was now on-board the Jarman ship, and it appeared as though the director might find it easier to raise money after several years in the wilderness. It would never be so straightforward, of course. Looking at Jarman’s world as captured in this film – not just Caravaggio’s – we can see now a peak point of a certain aesthetic, the flagging that the filmmaker is an artist, and the passing and eclipsing of a ‘what if’ moment.

What if Jarman got a moderately decent budget, what if he got to make one of these longstanding ideas that he’d worked on and refined over several years, and what if – and what would happen, if – he got widely more fully recognised as an important British film director? The world was a horror show, but at least certain things had come to pass.

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