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Cinema Caravaggio Continues in Ripley

Ripley, 2024, with Andrew Scott getting the Caravaggio vibe in Italy. Ripley author Patricia Highsmith and Caravaggio earned their reputations by showcasing violent acts that tested decorum and limits of their societies. Adapting the Ripley series’ first entry, writer-director Steven Zaillian sees the connection when a trip to Italy introduces the amoral main character to the Baroque painter’s works. Switching from two other screen adaptations’ feature film format, Zaillian extends the story for a Season 1 Netflix binge watching platform of eight one-hour episodes, allowing time to play up the Caravaggio connection.  Zaillian even brings the artist in on action as the start of Episode 8, whose title “Narcissus” reflects both a Caravaggio painting and some Ripley characters.  Zaillian’s lengthy time frame also grants extra attention to beautiful locations. While it almost seems a no-brainer to highlight gorgeous settings by using bright colors, Zaillian shoots in crisp black-and-white, giving the project a period feel suited to a story that takes place before cell phone and surveillance cameras existed to aid detectives--though it makes little sense that no one ever bothers to ask for a photo of Ripley.  Clearly familiar with cinematic legacies (after all, he earned an Oscar for his Schindler’s List screenplay), Zaillian includes framing similar to classic images from Strangers on a Train, The Godfather, Part II, and other striking films. Meanwhile Scott, Sherlock’s Moriarity and fresh off critical acclaim for a sensitive turn in All of Us Strangers, seems matched to the nuance of portraying both the likeability and menace of the confounding title character. However, Zaillian’s approach with actors makes dialogue feel more structured than natural and much of Scott’s heavy lifting comes from calibrated facial movements rather than vocal ease. An intellectual coolness in dialogue and performance reduces charm and vulnerability that makes audiences root for an essentially repugnant man, enhancing the story’s endemic troubling elements. But that dichotomy—wishing success for a sick sociopath—keeps viewers hooked, not just in this version but in other interpretations, sequels, and Highsmith’s five novels featuring Ripley. As for locations, set jetters can see why Ripley wants more from Italy just by driving along the Amalfi Coast, and those with a budget the size of Texas can stay at Villa Torricella on Capri, used as a mansion in early episodes.  Or they put big numbers on credit cards by following Ripley to Rome and checking in at the Excelsior. Those of us who join Ripley by seeking out Caravaggio paintings can find the ones shown in the series at museums in various cities. The Episode 2 title “Il Seven Mercies” reworks the name of Caravaggio’s altarpiece “Sette Opera de Misericordia,” which Ripley views at Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. In Rome, Ripley goes into San Luigi dei Francesi to see the Matthew trilogy, but he seems more taken by the Borghesi’s “David with the Head of Goliath,” in which some experts say the artist uses his own features as both youthful killer and older victim. Other Rome based Caravaggio paintings get full-screen attention when Ripley moves to Venice and buys a coffee table book of the artist’s works that fit thematically into Zaillian’s take. While prints reveal some of Caravaggio’s genius, a better sense comes by going to the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo for a close look at “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” or back to the Galleria Borghesi to re-examine “Madonna and Child with Saint Anne” (Dei Palafreneri). But reality prevents us from checking out Palermo’s “Nativity with St. Francis and St Lawrence,” stolen a few years after Ripley sees a movie-magic recreation of it.    

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