ART : Oddball Portrait on Film

Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's easy to see why British director Derek Jarman--who was a painter and is known for his gay-themed films (most recently, "Richard II")--was drawn to the life of 17th-Century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

After all, Caravaggio was not only a great artist but also: a hot-tempered guy with a police record; a painter of, among other things, frankly sensual male figures; the toast of top collectors of the day, including a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church; and quite likely (scholars are not certain) a homosexual.

Less obvious is just why "Caravaggio"--screening at 7:30 tonight at the Forum Theater in Laguna Beach as part of the Laguna Festival of the Arts' "Portrait of the Artist by the Filmmaker" series--turned out to be the exasperating, oddball biography it is.

In some ways, the 1986 film deliberately seems to keep the viewer at arm's length. Viewers have to make their peace with brief, static scenes in the studio (painting, after all, is not a terribly active activity), a confusing plot structure (beginning and ending with the artist's death in 1610), deliberately anachronistic details (a typewriter, a glossy magazine, odd costumes) and a skimpy plot involving another man's rivalry with a prostitute over the rakish young painter.

But in its perversity, the film does capture something of the artist's spirit and the two worlds--of blunt-spoken roustabouts and elegant ecclesiastics--in which he moved. By inviting comparison between an iconoclastic painter who lived 350 years ago and the grubby milieu of young British artists of our day, the anachronisms give the film an edgy, restless quality that avoids the usual worshipful cliches of artist biographies. Unfortunately, Jarman's pompous voice-over verbiage ("the stars are the diamonds of the poor," "thought without image . . . lost in the pigment") creeps in whenever no one on screen has anything much to say, which is pretty often.

But the best aspects of this film are purely visual. In its spare set design, inventive costuming, velvet darkness, subtle candlelight and washes of ruddy-gold daylight, "Caravaggio" conveys some of the luscious immediacy of the man's art. The gorgeous views of models posing for some of the famous paintings are practically worth the price of admission. Considering that the film was shot indoors, miles from Italy, with a minuscule budget of under $500,000, it is really a triumph of ingenuity.

Born in Northern Italy, Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592 or '93, when he was about 21. His early works are famous for the images of androgynous-looking young men who play instruments, react dramatically to a lizard bite, get their fortunes told or play cards.

The fanciful costumes they wear sometimes allow them to bare their shoulders in an alluring way as they pose with parted lips and invitingly tilted heads. These paintings have no specific settings, just sharply lit walls enclosing the figures and extraordinarily sharp lighting that gives them the solidity of sculptures.

In his 30s, the last decade of his life, Caravaggio turned exclusively to religious themes. But he portrayed the figures in a startlingly novel way--as grave and troubled humans (like his brooding--and semi-nude--teen-age "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness") rather than supernatural apparitions.

At the same time, however, his personal life became increasingly turbulent. One day he threw a plate of improperly cooked artichokes in a waiter's face. On another occasion, he took part in a post-ballgame brawl and killed a fellow named Ranuccio Tommasoni, which obliged him to flee Rome.

Caravaggio's hard knocks continued in Malta (where he escaped from a jail sentence shortly after being knighted) and Naples, where he was seriously wounded after someone attacked him by mistake. After a long recuperation, he headed back to Rome, hoping for his official pardon for the murder (when push came to shove, Caravaggio could depend on his friends in high places). The pardon eventually came through, but the artist caught malaria and died before he reached the Holy City.

Perhaps for budgetary reasons, in the film we don't see Caravaggio (sulky, bearded Nigel Terry) travel anywhere. We do see a lot of him in the studio, posing himself and--as time goes by and he can afford them--eloquent groups of attractive models. Other scenes sketch in the details of everyday life--petty quarrels and jealousies, worries about money, boasting, gambling, partying, eating, watching the fights, sex.

Sex is a major preoccupation here, a cheap plot device with no basis in historical fact. Ranuccio Tommasoni (Sean Bean) is transformed into a guy infatuated with Caravaggio and jealous of the artist's girlfriend, a prostitute called Lena. In one bizarre scene, the artist tosses gold coins to Ranuccio, who is posing for him. The young hoodlum puts the money in his mouth--storing it up the way squirrels do nuts--and then passes the coins on to Lena, who also seems to have an oral fixation about money.

Although Caravaggio had numerous highly placed patrons, the film zeros in on the artist's major supporter, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (the suavely expressive Michael Gough). He is a sensualist ("I do adore strawberries--one feels so wicked eating them out of season") who rhapsodizes to his appreciative fellow churchmen over Caravaggio's painting of a perky, ever-so-slightly smirking adolescent figure of Cupid.

In the film, when Caravaggio's whore is drowned, he uses her supine, barefoot body as the inspiration for his deeply emotional painting "Death of the Virgin," in which the mourners grieve over the painfully swollen body of a startlingly lifelike dead woman.

In reality, the church fathers at Santa Maria della Scala had initially rejected this painting because they said it lacked "decorum." One commentator writing a decade after Caravaggio's death complained that the Virgin looked like "some filthy whore from the slums." Little did he know that he may have contributed a plot point to a film that revels in the earthy immediacy of Caravaggio's art, and of his world.

What: "Caravaggio," a film biography of 17th-Century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, directed by Derek Jarman.

When: Thursday, May 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Forum Theater on the Laguna Festival of Arts grounds, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: San Diego (I-405) Freeway or Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway to Laguna Canyon Road (California 133).

Wherewithal: $4 and $5.

Where to Call: (714) 494-1145.

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