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Film / Caravaggio

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Caravaggio is a 1986 film directed by Derek Jarman.

It's a biopic of Michelangelo Caravaggio, the famous Italian painter of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The film gives a rather impressionistic version of his life, showing various scenes and moods rather than following a standard cradle-to-grave biopic format. We see Caravaggio as a teenage hustler who is both painting and seemingly working as a prostitute servicing older men. He comes under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough), who takes a professional and probably sexual interest in the young artist.

Cut to Caravaggio as a grown man, played by Nigel Terry. He has become a prominent artist who continues to lead a wild personal life. Into that life enter Ranuccio (Sean Bean), a street fighter, and his girlfriend, a prostitute named Lena (Tilda Swinton). Both Ranuccio and Lena become models for Caravaggio, and romantic jealousies rise up between all three.


Film debuts for both Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean. Robbie Coltrane plays Scipione Borghese, a cardinal who gets the hots for Lena.


  • Anachronism Stew: In keeping with Caravaggio's use of contemporary dress for his Biblical figures, Jarman intentionally includes several anachronisms in the film that do not fit with Caravaggio's life in the 16th century. In one scene, Caravaggio is in a bar lit with electric lights. Another character is seen using an electronic calculator. Car horns are heard honking outside Caravaggio's studio and in one scene Caravaggio is seen leaning on a green truck. Cigarette smoking, a motorbike, and the use of a manual typewriter also featured.
  • Biopic: Of the Very Loosely Based on a True Story sort.
    • Caravaggio is known to have killed a man named Ranuccio in 1606, which required him to leave Rome to avoid arrest; the circumstances are unclear but there's some evidence that the quarrel was over a gambling debt.
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    • There is a passing reference in court documents to a girl named Lena who modeled for him.
    • invokedWord of God says the movie shows Caravaggio dying of lead poisoning, although what's portrayed could be any sort of fever. In Real Life the nature of Caravaggio's death has never been firmly established. Theories include fever, lead poisoning, syphillis, and murder.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The dramatic moment where Lena is Letting Her Hair Down is punctuated by a look right at the camera.
  • Call-Back: There's a Call-Back to the Hemoerotic scene (see below) at the end. After Caravaggio slices Ranuccio's throat open, Ranuccio clutches the gushing wound, then touches Caravaggio's face in a similar manner to how Caravaggio smeared his face with blood earlier.
  • Chiaroscuro: The real Caravaggio was known for dramatic use of chiaroscuro with vivid contrasts. Many scenes in the movie are shot that way, like the one where Lena and Ranuccio are exploring the catacombs with lit candles.
  • Dramatic Drop: Jerusaleme drops a jug of water when Lena announces she is pregnant. Just to underscore the point there's a Repeat Cut showing the jug falling again from a different angle.
  • Erotic Eating: Ranuccio makes a great show of putting all the gold coins that Caravaggio flips to him in his mouth. Finally Caravaggio does the same. Later Ranuccio puts a coin in his mouth and "feeds" it to Lena.
  • Framing Device: The story is intercut with scenes of a dying Caravaggio thinking/dreaming about his life.
  • Girl Friday: A male version in the person of Jerusaleme, who is Caravaggio's companion, assistant (he mixes paint as well as holds mirrors for lighting), and lover.
  • Happy Flashback: The scene where Lena announces she's leaving Ranuccio for her rich new boyfriend features Ranuccio's quick flashback, a montage of some of their romantic scenes.
  • Hemoerotic: A sweaty, very homoerotic fight/duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio ends with Ranuccio suckering Caravaggio and slicing a wound on his stomach. Caravaggio touches his hands to the wound, lovingly smears blood over Ranuccio's face, and calls them "blood brothers." This is immediately followed by a cut to a scene where a jealous Lena is screaming at Ranuccio.
  • If I Can't Have You...: After she dumps him for a much richer boyfriend (the Real Life Scipione Borghese, known to have been a patron of Caravaggio), Ranuccio murders Lena.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: For the whole of her relationship with Ranuccio, Lena has all her hair tucked in under a head scarf. So when she's getting ready for the ball and she takes the scarf off and lets her long, vividly red hair down, it's dramatic. She then looks straight at the camera.
  • Mathematician's Answer: After Lena tells everybody she's pregnant.
    Ranuccio: Whose child is it?
    Lena: Mine.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title: Caravaggio
  • The Speechless: Jerusaleme, Caravaggio's companion, is mute.


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