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Caravaggio Reviews

Marrying a painterly aesthetic with a defiantly homosexual sensibility, this ironic biopic is probably the most accessible film of avant-garde British director Derek Jarman (LAST OF ENGLAND, EDWARD II). A fanciful reconstruction of the life of the late Rennaisance master (about which almost nothing is known), CARAVAGGIO dramatizes the painter's need for patronage, his religious beliefs, and his sexuality. Noting Caravaggio's unusually muscle-bound depictions of St. John, Jarman posits a sexual relationship between the painter (Nigel Terry) and Ranuccio Thomasoni (Sean Bean), a street thug who served as his model; Ranuccio's mistress (Tilda Swinton) stands in for Mary Magdalene and the Blessed Virgin in filmic facsimiles of some of the painter's best-known canvasses. Curiously, though Jarman undercuts narrative conventions through his use of obvious anachronisms--typewriters, motorbikes, etc.--the film reiterates one of the oldest cliches of Hollywood biopics (LUST FOR LIFE, MOULIN ROUGE); i.e., that art is little more than immediately recorded experience, "life" thrown directly onto the canvas; the process of artistic creation is completely glossed over. Jarman, a tireless advocate of gay rights, died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 52. Ironically, while his best work remained unseen outside of festival showings, his influence was profound in the realm of music video. REM's award-winning "Losing My Religion" and Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box," for example, both draw heavily on THE GARDEN's pastoral and Christian imagery.