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The tumultuous and adventurous life of Michelangelo Merisi, controversial artist, called by Fate to become the immortal Caravaggio. A violent genius that will dare to defy the ideal vision of the world imposed by the Renaissance painters. A provoker that scandalized patrons and institutions, raising the altars the outcast figures he knew so well: drunkards, vagrants and prostitutes. Written by
Longoni's new bio-pic about Michalangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the supremely great and more-famous-than-ever late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Italian artist, premiered in a long version at Lincoln Center, is a glorious spectacle with a charismatic star. Marked by rich interiors, often lit as in Caravaggio's paintings, panoramic shots, sweeping music, and large cast, this is a pleasure to watch. Beautiful to look at and richly eventful, if conventional, the film never errs in tone, though it may try to do a bit too much to leave one with a distinct impression of the brilliant artist's personality. What it does do is give a clear sense of the main figures in his life, his bisexuality, his patrons, lovers, and enemies; the ideological conflicts over his reliance on prostitutes and boys of the street as live models rather than drawings as the basis for his paintings, which often depict biblical scenes in an earthy manner; his dramatic lighting from a single point high above; his astonishing productivity (and dazzling virtuosity) despite a dissolute and violent existence that involved ten days of painting followed by a month of brawling; his struggle with malaria; his involvement with the Knights of Malta, and his end on a beach at the age of 39 after producing an extraordinarily rich and brilliant body of work, perhaps the first real modern paintings.
This film was produced by RAI and shot for a two-segment TV presentation and shown in New York in a 151-minute version; they say it will be cut for future theatrical screenings. The music is by the veteran if not quite first rank film composer Luis Enriquez Bacalov, the cinematography by veteran and first rank Vittorio Storaro. Alessio Boni, something of a matinée idol in Italy, gives an energetic performance in the lead. He certainly throws himself into it, especially in numerous brawls and sword fights. Subtleties of the personality arguably are not present; but details of the life remain conjectural anyway.
As a sign of his enthusiasm for the role Boni has liked to point out in interviews what he considers key points in common with the artist: his coming from virtually the same area near Milan; also having a priest relative; being 39, the age Caravaggio died, when he did the shooting; above all his coming to Rome virtually penniless at the age of 21 to make his fortune just like the painter. This Caravaggio has several advantages over Derek Jarman's more eccentric lower-budget 1986 version, though it by no means kicks Jarman's brilliantly original film out of the park. Longoni could shoot in the Farnese Palace and grand sets of late-renaissance Rome streets, and he shot with a full Italian cast, in Italian. On the other hand, some of the actors aren't Italian, and the voices are dubbed, which sometimes shows in key scenes. Caravaggio's "only love," Lena, is played by the English-born Sarah Felberbaum. His patron and protector, Cardinal del Monte, is played by the Spaniard Jordi Mollà. English, German, French, and Canadian actors are included in key roles. Will the Italians ever give up thinking the skill of their "doppiatori" makes up for the artificiality of this method? Jarman's much more limited budget film, shot in English with deliberately anachronistic improvised sets and costumes in a single interior, didn't stop him from improvising in ways that cinematically are more interesting; and his film is the more thought-provoking and original one, as well as the one that gives the viewer more time to stop and think. Longoni like Caravaggio fills his canvas with vivid figures; unlike the artist he rarely leaves a blank wall to rest the eye.
Longoni's film nonetheless has many nice scenes. Caravaggio is provided with a gorgeous male lover and companion (Francesco, Luca Capuano) and a bevy of lovely women to paint and make love to. The film gives a better sense of the size and variety of the paintings than Jarman's, though the paintings sometimes look a bit faded and artificial. It's also shown that Caravaggio contemplated corpses by the Tiber to know what death looked like; and saw executions, which he also used for some of his paintings, notably the one of the beheading of John the Baptist. The burning of Giordano Bruno is not only shown, but Bruno's modern intellectual position is telegraphed. The use of contemporary religious choral music to accompany the executions is a nice way to sweeten the pill without lessening the drama. The film is rich in scenes depicting the various brawls Michele got intoin taverns, in ball courts (with the man he allegedly killed, Ranuccio Tomassini, played by an oafish-seeming Maurizio Donadoni), and with a superior fencer from the Knights of Malta. Though the late sequence about Caravaggio's temporary membership in the order and high production of paintings on Malta and in Siracusa provides interesting details, it may need some cutting if a shorter version is really wanted, and for all its lush detail, the sense of an ending is somehow lacking due, perhaps, in part to the busy detail and political complications of this turbulent final section.
Showed as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, June 2007.
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