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By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 23, 1986


Derek Jarman
Nigel Terry;
Sean Bean;
Tilda Swinton;
Spencer Leigh;
Michael Gough
Under 17 restricted

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"Caravaggio," which is less a movie than an act of vandalism, narrates the life of the influential late-Renaissance painter through the lens of an imagined sexual obsession and an assortment of modernistic effects.

In the hands of writer-director Derek Jarman, Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) is a thrill-seeker, a bisexual voluptuary who discovers the object of his desire, Ranuccio (Sean Bean), in a bare-knuckles boxing match, and quickly falls into a me'nage a` trois with the brute and his girlfriend Lena (Tilda Swinton). He paints. He loves. He fights. He murders. And he dies throughout, for "Caravaggio," with rather pointless confusion, is told as a flashback from the artist's deathbed.

I may be a dull fellow, but from the very beginning of "Caravaggio," I hadn't the slightest idea as to what Jarman was up to. The movie, for example, is full of anachronistic effects -- courtiers in doublets pounding away at upright typewriters, an automobile in a barn, the thunder and whistles of distant trains, and an absurd sequence that seems to take place in a New York nightclub.

What's most puzzling is Jarman's view of Caravaggio himself. Throughout, the artist talks in voice-over, a jumble bizarrely composed of overheated poesy, homoerotic dreams and the kind of "insights" that might inspire a sophomore at Bennington to scribble in the paperback margin, "|" or even "|||" Thus: "Man's character is his fate"; "The gods have become diseases"; "All art is against lived experience"; "I am trapped, pure spirit in matter ..."

Does Jarman want us to hoot at Caravaggio, in the same way that the artist himself (played as a young man by Dexter Fletcher) sneers at his similarly orotund patron, the Cardinal (Michael Gough)? Or are we supposed to marvel that such great art flowed from such a silly soul (the idea at the heart of the similarly banal, but infinitely more entertaining, "Amadeus")?

At any rate, you spend less time wondering what Jarman is saying than wondering when "Caravaggio" is going to end. A former painter, costume designer and set decorator, Jarman has a routinely tasteful sense of handsome compositions, but there isn't a shot in the movie that makes you sit up and take notice. His cloddishness makes you see "Caravaggio" less as a tribute than some odd, and oddly irritating, effort at assassination.

"Caravaggio" is rated R and contains graphic violence, profanity and sexual themes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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