Italy’s fabled Renaissance period has yielded numerous figures of note to world history, among them Michelangelo and the infamous famiglia, Medici. Can there be a more celebrated painter than Michelangelo, whose most renowned work adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Perhaps not, but another master of the paintbrush shares his name. That would be Michelangelo Merisi, better known today as Caravaggio, an Italian town where Merisi spent part of his childhood.
There are several film productions which depict his all-too-brief adventures, or some fanciful variant of it – see Derek Jarman’s homoerotic ’80s version – but the most comprehensive is a two-part 2007 Italian telefilm, directed by Angelo Longini, and out this month on home video. Vittorio Storaro signed on as cinematographer, and at 211-minutes, sans commercials, it promises a fairly detailed examination of his turbulent life.
What a life it was! Against a backdrop of Shakespeare’s favored milieu – and Italy as a unified political entity did not exist until 1871, young Michele Merisi is packed off – contrary to his wishes – to Milan to study painting, where he falls into the web of maestro Simone, a harsh, abusive tutor, whose violent manner conceals a sexual longing for the boy. As Merisi grows, he finds friendship in his adopted cite, takes up fencing – and this Caravaggio is replete with Musketeer moments – and eventually challenges Simone, nearly strangling the reprobate in the process.
After decamping to Rome, Merisi (Alessio Boni), who now answers to “Caravaggio” — one must admit that is sounds more lyrical, and paradoxically, more macho, than “Merisi” – initially suffers ridicule for his artwork, but soon lands some prominent benefactors, and finds himself embroiled in palace intrigue, as the imperialistic Spanish crown lords it over the Romans. Not surprisingly, he makes a few enemies, including one Depardieuesque tormentor, whom Caravaggio bests in a handball match. Caravaggio has won the right to paint the loudmouth’s girlfriend, but it doesn’t stop there. Aping Giacomo Casanova, he beds the comely young sweet, but doesn’t seem to take an ordinate amount of pleasure in cuckolding his enemy.
Alas, the days of wine and roses are on the wane, as Caravaggio is horrified at injustices meted out to innocents by the Catholic Church, then at the zenith of its powers in Europe. Anyone foolhardy enough to publicly defy the Pope quickly learns the error of their ways, and Caravaggio sees his friend Lady Beatrice tortured mercilessly, as well as two other young women guillotined in the plaza. He stokes controversy himself by utilizing street people in his art deemed “vulgar” by the powers by the local authorities — church elders, of course.
Michele finally goes too far by painting a prostitute friend Fillide (Claire Keim) in the image of the Virgin Mother, provoking a mob to injure the hapless woman, and ultimately sealing his own fate. Earlier in the film, he battles a wicked bout of malaria, a potent killer of Europeans – as many a conquistador would learn – during that era. He proclaims to a friend, “I won’t live long”, and of course the real Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio passed before his 40th birthday.
This latest iteration of Caravaggio is a rambling epic which fortunately doesn’t ignore the rich political intrigue of his time in order to present action set pieces. However, it was crafted for television, and there’s definitely a dearth of breathtaking wide angle shots, so the film is never a visual travelogue, stoking fantasies of picturesque Continental vacations. However, that shouldn’t be its raison-d-etre. Like countless other cinematic protagonists, particularly those rooted in history, Michelangelo Caravaggio was a righteous moral provocateur whose own unique morality clashed with the prevailing ones of his period. If one wished to describe this movie in high-concept terms, you might label it Van Gogh meets the Three Musketeers, and I imagine some similar fabrication existed in the minds of its makers. At times, it’s also reminiscent of the sprawling American broadcast miniseries of the ’70s and ’80s, a largely extinct breed, victim to escalating costs and a myriad of electronic diversions.
Caravaggio doesn’t awe or surprise the viewer, but it’s a serviceable biopic about a talented figure that was largely ignored for centuries following his death, but is now viewed as one of the masters. The film’s greatest fans will likely be art aficionados/critics who are understandably curious about his many tribulations. For me, Caravaggio’s story encapsulates several social issues still vexing to us today: the separation of church and state, the role and rights of women, and how the male gaze can distort perceptions of such, and the ever-quixotic tendency for great artists to emotionally self-destruct, often abetted by those they threaten. Perhaps Michelangelo Merisi’s greatest creation was himself.