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Cinema Caravaggio

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Around the World in 80 More Movies features a look at the artist Caravaggio as a biopic topic along with the artist's influence on the look of films.

Caravaggio, 1986 with Nigel Terry painting masterpieces in Italy. Despite glory as the most celebrated painter of his own time, Caravaggio faded from mass popularity after his fall from grace and death in 1610. Less than 100 records document his life; instead, historians, critics, and fans interpret what they can from paintings—also fewer than 100. This gives director Derek Jarman flexibility in deciding a sex life for his protagonist. He imagines events that interact with some record, but like most filmmakers, relies heavily on the first word of any “Inspired by true events” claim. Jarman’s best achievement in the film comes from recreating the staging of Caravaggio paintings. Lighting, colors, and sets mix beautifully along with the faces and figures of such renowned performers as Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean. Jarman shot on studio stages in Great Britain, but the images he recreates hang in multiple locations throughout the world.

Game of Thrones, 2011 & 2012, with families protecting and expanding their powers to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Watching every Game of Thrones episode involves a completely empty schedule and dedicated binge-watching skills covering eight seasons full of power struggles and carnage. The series joins Caravaggio in making dark themes and violence intriguingly visual, with beheadings particularly popular. An itinerary for Games pilgrims includes Malta (home to two spectacular Caravaggio paintings). Seasons 1 and 2 highlight the series’ inventive, medieval-looking timeline in places like Mdina on the main island. The Kings Landing Gate at the former capital’s city wall takes no special effort to find, nor does the city’s Pjazza Mesquite, which served as setting for a vicious fight. Visitors to Valetta can look across the sea to Fort Manoel, shown in Episode 9 of the first season. Gamers used to admire the Azure Window rock formation on Gozo, but it collapsed in 2017, making it impossible to recreate the first episode’s striking wedding featuring Acquaman’s Jason Momoa and Emilia Clark. True pilgrims can take a full-day Game of Thrones tour, designed and led by locals who appeared on the show. Guides promise views of forts, parkland, and streets found for the Red Keep and Kings Landing, plus offer insider trivia. Someone like Caravaggio could easily fit into a Game of Thrones world. Following murder charges in Rome, the artist hoped to redefine himself on Malta, a history that led to one of the world’s greatest paintings that remains on site in a local cathedral. But he overstepped and fled, only to die under mysterious circumstances in Tuscany. Though Malta seems off the beaten path, it boasts a long list of film credits, including the hugely expensive Troy with Brad Pitt. Investing in water tanks for the film industry, Malta drew Raise the Titanic and Popeye. The latter’s sets remain open to visitors as Popeye Village theme park.

Gibson’s Passion (GP?), 2004, or Pasolini’s Gospel (PG?), 1964 with Jesus preaching and dying in Jerusalem. GP and PG share multiple traits: They follow the same source, filmed in Italy’s Matera, and feature influence by Caravaggio. Yet the two takes on Jesus leave entirely different impressions. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew shows up on lists of “best arthouse films” ever made, while Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ ended up a box office miracle earning more than

$400 million. Pasolini’s work at times feels like a silent film, with static black-and white images and handheld camera movements. Sound comes from dialogue and voice-over taken directly from “The Gospel of Matthew” rather than an organized screenplay. Not to say Gibson took an easy course—he presented his film in Aramaic. Like Caravaggio,

both Pasolini and Gibson pay attention to contrasts of light. They also focus on faces and reactions to cruel deeds. But while Pasolini pulls his camera away from the crunching and stabbing of thorns, whips, and nails, Gibson showcases the moment of impact. That may make him the closer Caravaggio cohort.

Godfather, 1972, with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino illuminated in scenes that look right out of a Caravaggio painting. I know, I know, discussing filming locations means The Godfather and its two follow-ups belong in sections about Manhattan or Sicily or Hollywood or my home state Nevada. But The Godfather redefined concepts of Mob movies by standing out artistically, and that comes partly from its distinct look, as deep browns and blacks contrast with light and golden tints reminiscent of Caravaggio. The artist never painted someone in a bed drenched by a horse’s head oozing blood…but he could have. Violence and beauty indelibly combine in the dark visions of both Michelangelo Merisi and Frances Ford Coppola.

Mean Streets, 1973 with Harvey Keitel aiming to move up in Little Italy’s mob world.

In his excellent biography of Caravaggio, Andrew Graham-Dixon emphasizes the artist’s

cinematic impact during an interview with director Martin Scorsese. The director clarifies how a painting like Rome’s “Judith and Holofernes” focuses on an event’s action as it occurs. “You sort of come on the scene midway, and you’re immersed in it,” said Scorsese. He specifically credits “The Calling of Saint Matthew” for his staging of the introductory bar scene in Mean Streets, the movie that set him on course as one of cinema’s great tellers of crime stories. Another Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, falls into the “Cinema Caravaggio” category in both subject and tone.

Subjectively, it covers events found on the artist’s canvasses. Also, by allowing actors to maintain a mix of regional accents, Scorsese gave the movie an au courant quality, resembling Caravaggio’s tendency for using street people wearing clothes of his era to portray classic Biblical figures.

Seventh Seal, 1957 with Max Von Sydow returning home from the Crusades. Fascinated by pictures he saw on a church wall, Ingmar Bergman first wrote a play called Wood Painting, then expanded its allegorical ideas on film with The Seventh Seal. The film proved revolutionary, telling a compelling story while seeking answers to life’s biggest questions. Famous for images of Death playing chess with a knight, the story includes a segment where a squire hangs out with an artist who works on a wood painting. Starkly contrasting lighting and carefully staged shots bring Caravaggio to mind, especially during a confession through bars resembling those in “The Beheading of John the Baptist.” Sets for the Knight’s castle interiors look much like that painting’s dungeon. No one mentions Caravaggio in supplemental material presented along with the movie on a Criterion DVD, though Pablo Picasso gets credited for the appearance of a juggler’s costume.

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