MOVIES | “Caravaggio”: Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, and Tilda Swinton in a steamy Renaissance love triangle

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Caravaggio is British director Derek Jarman’s 1986 foray into the violent and tumultuous life of Michelangelo di Caravaggio, the celebrated Renaissance painter and convicted criminal. Because Jarman’s tale of love, sex, and manipulation relies less on dialogue than on dramatic gestures, some viewers may find the movie hard to follow. However, once I accepted that Jarman was trying to challenge my hidebound concept of storytelling, I appreciated the film’s intense emotion.

Jarman focuses his camera on the rise of Caravaggio (Nigel Terry)—who is living in Rome under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (Michael Gough)—and the love triangle among the artist, his model Ranuccio Tomassoni (Sean Bean), and Ranuccio’s wife Lena (Tilda Swinton). This love triangle chiefly plays out in the artist’s studio, as Ranuccio and Lena alternately pose for some of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings—he flirts with one while the other watches. Caravaggio dances from one to the other while his patron tries to secure the painter some of his first major commissions from the Catholic Church.

caravaggio, a movie directed by derek jarman. playing february 21 at the walker art center, 1750 hennepin ave., minneapolis. admission $8. for information, see walkerart.org.

Oddly, Jarman chooses to intersperse this story with snippets of the painter’s last hours as he dies of a fever, accompanied by Terry’s melodramatic voice-overs. These voice-overs offer limited insight into Caravaggio’s character; they seem firmly rooted in his fevered delerium. These “flash-forwards” left me confused and irritated, but by the halfway point, I had seen enough to be able to piece the story together and appreciate the significance of Caravaggio’s stormy glances and Lena’s fits of pique. If you have the patience to wait out these moments of artistic narcissism, you’ll be rewarded with a stormy love story about one of the greatest painters who ever lived.

James Sanna (james.sanna@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.