; Derek Jarman’s portait of the painter Caravaggio opens in Scotland this month. Trevor Johnston 3 talks to the unconventional director.

, You‘d expect anyone who waited

Q seven years to make a film about a

; 17th century Italian artist to be

5 terribly serious and protective about

his work. Thankfully, Derek Jarman

disproves such preconceptions of the

, deeply artistic filmmaker. Even

: though it has been a hard struggle to

get Caravaggio completed .he still

? retains an impish sense of humour

about it: ‘Yes, I spent seven years waiting to make the film that I wanted to make. which is much too long. I don‘t think they are all that important anyway; they should be thrown off in an afternoon. At this point I couldn’t give a damn about

Caravaggio, because it’s gone.’ Not

quite what Dickie Attenborough

might say.

But then Derek Jarman isn’t

exactly Dickie Attenborough, he is

not and will never be, one of the cosy

BAFTA bunch. For a start, he came

out of a background in painting (his

; exhibitions culminated in a 1984

retrospective at the ICA) and set

design (for the Royal Ballet and Ken

Russell’s The Devils amongst others)

before giving the British film

establishment apoplexy with his first feature Sebastiane in 1975. Its

5 forthright and unabashed

homo-eroticism was unparalleled at

the time and the controversy it aroused was equalled two years later

3 by the Dada-ist anarchy ofJubilee

; which captured the

l anti-establishment aggression of the

5 punk movement in all its leather-clad

f ingloriousness. Always aware of what would really get up the collective noses of our native cultural

. fuddy-duddys, he then turned to (horror!) Shakespeare, with a very,

er, playful version of The Tempest replete with a chorus line of dancing sailors et al.

That was in 1979. Since then the finance had not been forthcoming for another narrative feature until last year when the British Film Institute, pleased with the favourable response to J arman’s avant garde treatment of'I’he Bard’s sonnets, The Angelic Conversation ,

which they blew up from the home

movie 8mm format to big-screen

35mm, got together with Channel 4

to shell out a measly £475,000 for

Caravaggio. Shot in a warehouse in

London, and starring a brooding

Nigel Terry in the title role, it

features Sean Bean as Thomasini

and Tilda Swanton as Lena, both of whom are involved in a passionate

2The List 2— 15 May

and ultimately tragic relationship with the artist, and came away from

E the Berlin Film Festival with the Silver Bear.

Jarman sums it up quite succinctly: ‘It’s a film about a painter, so I made

i a film the way I think a painter would, as opposed to a film-maker’. , Indeed, at time Jarman’s film looks

like a series of tableaux vivants, as richly coloured, with deep religious

: reds as any recent film that comes to 2 mind, allowing the viewer time to

gaze langorously on the beautiful forms that fill the screen. Contours,

i light, and movement are all ; examined with a painterly eye,

reaching beyond the reconstruction of the Caravaggio pictures around

: which a good deal of the film is


The pictures themselves are very nearly all we have to go on when attempting to paste together the details of Caravaggio’s life. Having

been re-evaluated during the last

f_ twenty or thirty years, he is now

. regarded as the last great artist of the j Italian Renaissance (he died in 1610, i aged 39); he turned against the idealisation of the times towards a

2 much more dynamic realism. Often

using the paupers he found on the

streets as his models, for example in

The Death of the Virgin now in The Louvre, he caused a scandal by

i visualising the lofty religious

subjects of contemporary painting as

i ordinary people. The Italian is also

credited with the invention of what has now become ‘cinematic’ lighting; Chiarascuro used the stark contrast

between dark and the light to

dramatically emphasise form and

f was another radical departure from the then accepted flat lighting.

However, beyond the legacy of the

pictures, J arman explains the

difficulty he had in digging up much

, more of value; ‘People forget that

i the only documents that we have,

apart from the police records which

g are pretty bland, are written by Gian ' Vallioni, with whom Caravaggio had i a court case. Caravaggio wrote a

' poem about him calling him ‘Gian

Vallioni-Shit-In-Your-Pants’. So,

what Vallioni did when he was

writing about the history of artists was an assassination job on Caravaggio.

Thus, the film is a piece of detective work with the plot evolving out of the pictures themselves. ‘When he died in 1610 he had been on the run for four years after the

murder of Thomasoni in Rome. The Beheading of St John , done in exile in Malta about a year after the murder is signed in the blood which drips from St John’s neck onto the floor says ‘Caravaggio did this’.Facit MichleAngelo. It struck me as extraordinary that he had signed this one painting in this way. It is obviously confessional and most probably relates to the murder of Thomasoni. This reading ofthe painting opened the door for me to a complete interpretation of the painter’s life. I tied the Thomasoni character in with another painting The Martyrdom of St Matthew. He was having problems with the picture, which he resolved with a glamorous male nude; this we know from X-rays. In the film, the discovery ofThomasoni and the painting ofa masterpiece provided, I felt, the key to Caravaggio’s work in unifying and identifying the religious, artistic and sexual sides of his nature.‘

Dullish art college texbook stuff it is not, hoever, for Caravaggio is infused with the many elements from Jarman’s own experience as an artist, whose work has created uproar because of its controversial

nature and its resistance to

contemporary social mores, with all the sense of isolation, exacerbated by his homosexuality, that that can bring. ‘It came out ofa feeling of

. doubt. What am I doing trying to

make films when you can‘t make films? What‘s the point of bashing

your head against a brick wall when a you know there are several exits and : you could go and do something else?

I put that element ofdoubt in the

2 film. It’s like a picture by me using Caravaggio as a subject. in the same ' way that he painted St Matthew as a

subject. People get that confused. Their perception ofwhat a film like this should be is very conditioned to a sort of antiseptic attempt to

i recreate the past.‘

No one could claim Caravaggio is

; antiseptic. Its roots lie in Ken Russell’s florid films about composers in its rather boisterous

attitude to historial accuracy. Jostling in there with all the early 1600’s paraphernalia are Italian

clothes and props from the 19405 as 3 well as several very modern

anachronisms, including a glossy magazine filled with Renaissance paintings, and a pocket calculator-toting Cardinal. At the mention ofthe latter, Jarman springs to clarify his intention, ‘Most of these things are there because they tell the story. You see a man with a calculator and you immediately know that he’s connected with money. And I quite like that sort of wit. You find that in Caravaggio‘s pictures too, he’s not completely dour. When he painted them they were quite funny, although like Shakespeare the humour’s pretty obsolete now. Things like the picture of the young boy with the serpent, which is about masturbation. Quite wicked really.’

Another element which marks the film apart from others of its type is the acutely gay sensibility which lies fundamentally behind all of

Jarman’s work. ‘I was a teenager in the Fifties,’ he emphasises, his mood obviously darkening from its usual chirpiness, ‘and no matter what people have decided from haircuts and jeans and James Dean pictures, it was horrible. It was the most mean and dishonest decade, really a very nasty time to grow up. Within a middle-class home, the sort I came from, the atmosphere was really repressive. My parents were very nice, but that’s just the way it was; growing up in an RAF station, knowing one was gay and having no one to talk to until one was 22, not even knowing that anyone was like you were because the times were so repressive. That’s bound to leave

onewith a certain amount of . belligerence which I Will never live

down. After all, why shouldn’t the whole panoply of homosexual love be just as fruitful as heterosexual love? I don’t accept that as ghetto-ising. It’s only the world outside that ghetto-ises my films.’

Yet, the current moral climate is such that Jarman’s films Sebastiane and Jubilee caused Mrs Whitehouse and company to foam at the mouth after their recent television screenings. It seems that the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ has now become the ‘Love that dare not be shown on Channel 4 even after 11 at night’. Needless to say, Derek pays little attention to their reactionary mewling: ‘That’s my whole point,’ he smiles, ‘I want to corrupt as much of British youth as possible, to turn them to violence and sin. No really, I’m just an excuse for those people. The violence in my films reflects the situation we live in. It’s the violence ofself-definition.’

Jarman cites Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette as ‘An important film in the changing of people‘s attitudes’, and half-jokingly sees Letter to Brezhnev as ‘rather a gay film; you know, I always thought it was boys rather than girls that went to pick up sailors.’ Both these films, however, are important because, along with Caravaggio, they represent, at a time when big-budget spectaculars like Revolution have gone sadly awry, a renaissance in modest but challenging British films. ‘Yes, the good thing about the last year,’ Jarman agrees, ‘is that there have been small films that have done well, like Brezhnev and Laundrette. And I hope that Absolute Beginners does well too. I think there should be lots ofdifferent types offilrns.’

Which is what Jarman stands for, and why he matters. That we can have figures who are not prepared to compromise, not prepared to go to the Goldcrests or the Thorn EMIs to churn out transatlantic pap, is part of the reason why ‘different types of films’ will continue to be made in this country. In the meantime Caravaggio is lush, quirky, erotic and finally moving; and the affable Mr Jarman will be in Edinburgh on Sunday 4 May and Glasgow on Monday 5 May to talk about it. Caravaggio (18) opens at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on 4 May and Glasgow GFTon 18 May, with a special preview on the 5th. Full details

in the Film list.