Film review: Caravaggio, part of the Derek Jarman retrospective, Jarman at HOME

Before we start, HOME is one of my favourite spaces in Manchester. I just wanted to say that. I haven’t professed any feelings for the place itself in quite a while, given the frequency I visit. I don’t take it for granted, especially given the recent enforced absence (I’m over using the C word).

So no, I don’t take it for granted but heading into the building yesterday just before 6pm, leaving again just after 8pm, it was a hive, a sheer hive, people, of activity.

People heading in and out of the Manchester Open Exhibition, heading upto the theatres and cinemas, eating, drinking and laptopping in the ground bar/ the upstairs restaurant, some browsing in the shops (they’ve got Ian Curtis greeting cards in there at the moment), chatting to greeters at the welcome desk, standing in line at the box office.

It’s just…life, people enjoying it and squeezing every last cultural drop out of it, courtesy of HOME. So a little late according to the February love calendar, but I heart you HOME.

And so as part of a collaboration with Manchester Art Gallery and their Protest! exhibition, HOME is currently in the midst of a Derek Jarman retrospective. The set designer, author, filmmaker and actual gardener…all in addition to being a pivotal figure in gay rights activism; a leading campaigner against Clause 28.

The screening movingly introduced by celebrated filmmaker, Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, Ammonite), Caravaggio was made in 1986 and stars a young Dexter Fletcher (a young Caravaggio), Nigel Terry (Caravaggio), Tilda Swinton (Lena) and I’m going to call him a national treasure because he JUST IS – Sean Bean (Ranuccio).

Born in 1942, 80 years ago, we lost Jarman in 1994 to an AIDS related illness. But as with every great artist, he lives on through his work.

The film follows takes us through the…fictional life (although there are, of course, factual details scattered throughout) of the 17th century Italian painter Michaelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio.

As perhaps dark and somewhat tormented as his paintings, the artist was a convicted criminal and, as depicted amidst a different narrative, indeed a murderer, having killed ‘friend’ Ranuccio in a sword fight.

The film itself is a painting with a pulse. Shot beautifully in faithful tribute to Caravaggio’s art in rich reds, dark shadows and a clever use of light to bring into focus, a serious of close-ups on faces, the expressions of which can tell a thousand words in a 5 second shot. Additionally we enjoy the steady, measured narrative of the older Caravaggio from his deathbed as he examines his life.

Indeed the almost ominously haunting timbre of Nigel Kelly’s voice along with the dark depictions on screen are reminiscent of those absolutely terrifying public information films of the 70s, in particular this little gem, Lonely Water, from 1973 (voiced by Donald Pleasance as the Grim Reaper):

The film shows Caravaggio using friends, prostitutes, friendly prostitutes, to pose and create a vision which the artist committed to canvas. In fact our only source of his work being those paintings, the film reverses this process as we’re seeing them come to life.

As the young Caravaggio, Dexter Fletcher (giving me strong Jagger vibes), portrays a cocksure and literal street-wise attitude as a teenager both painting and prostituting himself to men for money. But in the close-ups a vulnerability comes screaming through.

Nigel Kelly gives a steady, thoughtful, brooding performance, the ferocious passion left to his paintings and occasional angry outburst to weary models who might dare to break position during long, weary, heavy, meticulous painting sessions long into the night.

His gentle, caring and paternal side is reserved for a deaf and mute companion, introduced as a young boy sold to the artist to assist him in his work. Indeed their relationship is touching, non-moreso as the young, but now grown man clings to him as Caravaggio’s literally takes his own rapidly dwindling life into his own hands.

The somewhat mutually beneficial relationship between Caravaggio and Michael Gough’s Cardinal Del Monte is, to use modern parlance, problematic. One on hand, supportive, perhaps again mutually exploitative, but given the relationship’s origins of young, vulnerable artist/adult high-standing church leader, the film isn’t shy to shine a light on the age old theme of religious hypocrisy and abuse (wherever on the scale this may come).

OK, we’ve waited long enough. Sean Bean (Shaun Baun) makes his film debut and as we don’t hear him speak for a fair few scenes, I wondered whether this is one performance where his glorious yorkshire accent is left unheard (side note, I don’t actually wish to reduce Sean Bean to a caricature – I have much admiration).

It is not.

Indeed as Dexter Fletcher before him delivers his lines in a captivating cockney accent, and various english accents and dialects are allowed to flourish, we are treated to Ranuccio/Bean delivering his lines in the way nature intended and what I enjoyed as a wonderful juxtaposition to his italian baroque aesthetic.

Speaking of which, the anachronistic elements of the cinematography slowly but surely start to creep in as the film progresses. To the point where the viewer (shh, me) is almost second-guessing everything they thought they knew. Did the tuxedo, the motorbike, electric lighting, trains, the calculator exist in 17th century Italy (or, of course, anywhere)? It’s clever and it’s symbolic of how biblical figures in Caravaggio’s paintings would collide with the aesthetics of the dress of modern day (then, of course) Italy.

Importantly, an overarching theme of the film is sexuality, and the erotic depictions of the male form. The suggested bisexuality of the artist is explored in highly charged and homoerotic scenes, as his gaze falls on bare-chested Ranuccio engaged in an organised bare-knuckle fight. But not exclusively.

His attention turns to Ranuccio’s girlfriend Lena (portrayed in an almost ethereal sense by the wonderful Tilda Swinton). What were the motivations?

The artist’s averted attention and passion in the film for Lena; a means to an end to capture her engagement as his model for his art? To provoke a jealousy in a more genuine love and lust for Ranuccio? A diversion to himself, others of the true sense of his feelings? There is a definite question mark over the latter, given the eventual fate of the three main players in the triangle.

The film is layered but the unapologetic depictions of homosexuality are strong.

There are many parallels to be drawn in this depiction between one artist, and another. Derek Jarman’s passion for taking on the establishment, pushing (others’) boundaries in his art in his films, paintings, poetry, the way he lived his life and advocated for others sharing a suppression by society.

And so, the programme, Jarman at HOME, which opened on 30 January 2022, comprises all of the director’s 11 feature films in addition to 11 short films, presented chronologically over six weeks with special guests and speakers due to attend several screenings.

Co-Curator Rachel Hayward, Head of Film at HOME, comments:

Filmmaker. Artist. Set designer. Author. Gardener. Activist. Jarman was a true polymath and we are delighted to be hosting this extensive retrospective of one of the most influential figures in contemporary British culture. We look forward to screening all of Jarman’s 11 feature films to our audiences, alongside some lesser-known short films, and we encourage people to also check out the brilliant Protest! exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery to be fully immersed in the world of Derek Jarman.

Please click here for details of the full programme of events and to book tickets:

As mentioned, the retrospective runs alongside Manchester Art Gallery’s Protest! exhibition which marks the first time the diverse strands of Jarman’s practice – as painter, writer, filmmaker, set-designer, gardener, political activist – have been brought together in over 20 years, since the significant exhibition of his work at the Barbican, London, in 1996.

Derek Jarman? You have my attention. Next stop, Manchester Art Gallery…

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