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How Did Caravaggio Influence Movies? 

A LACMA film series asks the question

Thursday, Jan 17 2013
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While "cinematic" is wantonly thrown around when discussing other media, no word is so often misapplied in talking about movies as "painterly." Usually it's a vague descriptor indicating wowing cinematography — but LACMA's six-film "Cinema After Caravaggio" series attempts a more delicate project, trying to pinpoint a single painter's influence on movies.

In 1610, almost 300 years before the invention of the motion picture camera, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's fugitive existence ended in the harbor town of Porto Ercole. He was 38 and had lived an unruly, scandalous life — "a great painter, but a wicked man," according to Stendhal. Although Caravaggio's infamous name faded after his death, his eye-popping signature style — Tenebrism, in which subjects illuminated by a single, strong light source are posed against a field of spelaean black — was the most influential of the 17th century, spawning a host of imitators collectively known as the Caravaggisti.

LACMA's art exhibit "Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy" groups eight Caravaggio canvases with 50 others thought to show his influence. Reviewing the show — and of course noting the "cinematic" nature of Caravaggio's style — L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight says of Caravaggio's works, "Stylized German Expressionist movies and hard-boiled Hollywood film noir prepared modern eyes to see them anew."

click to enlarge Nigel Terry, left, and Sean Bean in Derek Jarman's Caravaggio
  • Nigel Terry, left, and Sean Bean in Derek Jarman's Caravaggio

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"Cinema After Caravaggio," however, bypasses many obvious candidates — works by the great film noir cinematographer John Alton, responsible for the most profoundly dark chiaroscuro in the movies, or Agnès Merlet's 1997 Artemisia, a biopic of card-carrying Caravaggisti Artemisia Gentileschi.

Searching for cinematographic Tenebrists, LACMA selects 1989's O Sangue, the rhapsodic black-and-white feature debut of the formidable Portuguese Pedro Costa, and 1992's Confortorio, by the little-exported Italian Paolo Benvenuti, about the Inquisition ordeal of two Jews in Rome in 1736. Benvenuti, who had initially studied as a painter, drapes his film in Caravaggio-esque shadow.

Caravaggio's biblical figures wore the costumes of contemporary Italy and were sat for by models from the despised classes that the painter mixed with — and so Derek Jarman's willfully anachronistic 1986 Caravaggio, starring Nigel Terry as the artist, collides 1980s London with Pope Paul V's 17th-century Papal States, drawing parallels between two eras of art patronage. Though a brush layering a canvas with Caravaggio's black-on-black-on-black opens Jarman's film, the paintings Terry is seen working on are no reproductions; indeed, they're strikingly modern. Shot in a warehouse on the Isle of Dogs, London, which often resembles a hip gallery space, Caravaggio includes an unveiling gala for the artist's Amor Vincit Omnia, which ties Vatican venality to Thatcherite excess, while elsewhere Caravaggio is slandered by that timeless figure, the jealous critic — Giovanni Baglioni, whose imitative Ecstasy of St. Francis happens to be visiting LACMA right now.

Jarman's film was released shortly after a major 1985 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Age of Caravaggio," had reignited interest in both the painter's work and his weakness for male beauty. In the words of James Tweedie, "Scholars searched for gay shibboleths, for an anachronistically queer iconography scattered throughout his paintings." Reading his fantasy of the iconoclastic gay artist onto Caravaggio's biography, Jarman recounts the painter's journey from self-taught, sweet-and-tender hooligan to Cardinal del Monte's rent boy to picking up tabs himself. We periodically return from these flashbacks to the stricken Caravaggio on his deathbed, images particularly resonant during the height of the AIDS crisis, which claimed Jarman in 1994.

Jarman reads the most notorious event of Caravaggio's life — when he killed a man, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in 1606, before fleeing Rome ahead of a death sentence — through the prism of same-sex desire. The accepted account was that Tomassoni, played here by Sean Bean, was slain in a brawl over a tennis match, though Jarman has the murder as the conclusion of a bisexual love triangle, the third corner of which is a variation of Caravaggio's model, Fillide Melandroni, played by Tilda Swinton in her first film role. The Penitent Magdalene for which Swinton poses is one of the film's many tableaux vivant, including St. Jerome and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, while the guttering candles and threaded smoke recall Georges de la Tour, who has two canvases in the LACMA show. (Angelo Longoni's 2007 miniseries Caravaggio, starring Alessio Boni with Claire Keim as Melandroni, playing off-site at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, has the trappings of a far more traditional and heteronormative prestige biopic.)

In contrast, the visual references in Martin Scorsese's 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ, also in the series, are to Renaissance, not Baroque, painting: Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross, or the foreshortened view of Mantegna's Lamentation Over the Dead Christ. Temptation's connection with Caravaggio is, then, more of a spiritual kinship — it's in the film's direct, hallucinatorily heightened feeling of moral crucible, while Caravaggio's use of cut-purses and streetwalkers is echoed in Scorsese's homely, American-vernacular version of Roman-occupied Israel. This includes Harvey Keitel's Judas-as-tough-Brooklyn-Jew, Harry Dean Stanton's country street-corner preacher Paul, and apostles, played by the likes of Victor Argo and John Lurie, who seem like pool-hall loafers.

With this motley crowd, the coda of Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets is apt: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets." And the streets are the native environment of Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose nonprofessional-cast film Gospel According to St. Matthew (not playing) was an obvious influence on Last Temptation. Like Caravaggio, Costa and Christ, Pasolini was drawn to the subproletariat, traversing with pimps and prostitutes, thieves and thugs. After supplying the argot dialogue for Fellini's 1957's Nights of Cabiria and using Bach to elevate the squabbles of petty pimps in 1961's Accattone, he released the 1962 Anna Magnani vehicle Mamma Roma, screening at LACMA on Jan. 19.

There are suggestions of Caravaggio in Mamma Roma's groupings of adolescent hoods on a slum stairwell, and in the lopsided, spotty face of pubescent Ettore Garofalo, but the affinity is, again, more a matter of ethos. The film's principal setting, ultramodern concrete block flats surrounding an overgrown lot and ruins of unknown antiquity, remind us of the persistence of history in the Eternal City, and the fact that Pasolini was perhaps frequenting the same side streets that Caravaggio had, and was sanctifying the same peasant class, as well as sharing, tragically, in their violence.

By avoiding clear stylistic analogs for such nearly invisible connective threads, LACMA's program argues that the great Tenebrist's most important cinematic descendant was not noir but Italian neorealism. For in Caravaggio's art as in few others, one sees the lesson "Blessed are the poor."

BODIES, SHADOWS AND STORIES: CINEMA AFTER CARAVAGGIO | Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles | Jan. 18-29 | lacma.org, www.iiclosangeles.esteri.it

Reach the writer at nick.pinkerton@gmail.com

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