When making films about artists, there are two approaches to choose from. The first is to aim for a biography, by bringing the personality to the forefront. However, as a result, the art of painting, through which the artist speaks, looses its importance. Focusing on the artist's personality and his neuroses is unfair, in my opinion. That is not the main thing that should be portrayed. However, we cannot deny that biography is here to stay, and often times it is extremely interesting.
The second possible form, which is of more interest to me, is when the story of the film – as “text”, is merged with the painting – as “text”. When a synthesis of these two systems of signs is created, the result, in my opinion, is more distinct and interesting. Derek Jarman's 1986 film “Caravaggio” is an example of this second approach.
Derek Jarman (1942-1994) is seen as one of British independent film's most discernible representatives. I want to focus on two things in his film about the baroque-period painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. First, it is beyond doubt that the film's director very scrupulously studied Caravaggio's biography and work. Watching the film, you are aware that you are seeing the result of a tremendous amount of research. There are no unintentional details. This can be seen in the colors used to both show the creation of a painting, as well as in the composition of the scene – nothing is random. The colors used in the film are balanced and rhythmic – in perfect reference to Caravaggio's work; this creates the feeling that we are almost told more about the painting than the artist himself. I recently became aware of the fact that the actor who plays Caravaggio, Nigel Terry, is visually very similar to Caravaggio, as seen in his portrait painted by Ottavio Leoni in the 17th century. Another nod to the director's precision.
Secondly, by rejecting the biographic approach (at times, of course, individual details that hint at the life of the artist are inserted) – the film is made so that one doesn't form assumptions about its time-scale and chronology. It is very difficult to do this in film. After viewing, the film is understood holistically – much like a painting is.
I believe that Jarman did this knowingly. This can also be seen in his other films. He has directed, in my opinion, one of the best screen versions of Shakespeare's “The Tempest” (1979), where the play's text was divided into parts and then switched around. An interpretation was created, without the changing or addition of one single word.