Derek Jarman's typically unconventional biopic Caravaggio draws clear parallels between the life of the 16th century Italian painter and those of gay men in the AIDS and Thatcher-haunted 1980s. Both eras found a decadent underworld at odds with the ruling regime; Jarman shows us men falling in and out of love (often with the wrong sort) and having to face up to their own mortality. Modernity is represented by the casting of a pre-Press Gang Dexter Fletcher as the young Caravaggio, a street urchin taken in by the Church, and an early incarnation of Sean Bean as the brutish prize fighter the adult Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) tumbles for; at one point, he feeds Bean with gold coins, as if he were a beefcake slot machine. Unlike Peter Greenaway, a director from an art school background keen to fill his film-canvasses with movement (of bodies, light, reference points), Jarman was drawn to the still life. Posed, studio-bound, often codified tableaux make the film something of a challenge, and the austerity might prove off-putting for some: Jarman spent much of his career trying to convince his audience (and, you suspect, himself) that his films weren't just meant to occupy a certain gap in Channel 4's overnight schedules. There's a danger that, in this reading, Caravaggio becomes merely another of the cinema's doomed gay masochists, suffering for his art, but Jarman chooses his material and players wisely: if the story ends in tears, it takes an unexpected route there, stopping by Tilda Swinton as a ravishing third point of the central love triangle, and Robbie Coltrane as the nephew of a very camp Pope. Full of ideas and true to itself, it makes a bold claim, all in all, for a cinema making up in intellectual riches what it might be lacking elsewhere.
Caravaggio is available on DVD and to stream via the BFI.