Caravaggio’s Influence on Film


Ok, I’ll admit it: I love film more than I do painting. There’s much I appreciate about film: it’s almost invisible manipulation through the use of perspective, it’s use of sound; the actors and the montage style of its presentation. But what lends the gravitas to the medium is its visual beauty. In the great films there is no gimcrack cinematography that lessens the impact. Frankly, it is impossible for a film to be a great one if it is not visually sound. So, a great film must have style, and there is no doubt that Baroque art – a movement of seething drama, clashing titans and light and shadow – possessed that ability. Its most identified exponents are artists such as Rubens, Bernini and Caravaggio. I will be focusing on the latter in this essay, for Caravaggio is that rare breed who has exceeded his medium. Without him, movies would be less dramatic and less cool.

It is first necessary to examine Caravaggio the artist. The French classical artist, Nicolas Poussin, lambasted him saying, “the ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell.” I don’t know if Caravaggio is in hell or not, but Poussin is right in a way about the “hell” part. Compared to the supposedly transcendent religious paintings of the Renaissance, Caravaggio’s paintings were decidedly against the mainstream. He did not align himself with the sacrosanct images where mere commoners could not reach the seemingly divine clouds. Caravaggio was not in that racket. His paintings dealt with the people in the streets, the ones that would be staring from the pews in a church in Rome. He did not give them airs, or see them any differently in the knowledge that these subjects would be in his paintings. He saw them for what they were: the same type of people who had been depicted in the scriptures. There is also this distinct realism that can be seen with the dirt under the nails, the paltry grapes, or realizing how hard it is to kill someone (like in Scorsese’s Goodfellas). Caravaggio is an artist who first realized that barrier between art and the masses: how the people were depicted themselves. For an art form that prides itself on its appeal to the masses, Caravaggio was possibly the perfect fit for movies.

If Caravaggio was something of a hero of naturalism, then he was also the one of the most important stylists. To put it simply, without him, art (and likewise film) would be more prosaic without him. His hold on both mediums is fascinating, but with film, he was the father of the world weary flicks: the French poetic realist works and film noir. Although, this sense of “world weariness” was by no means evident throughout his oeuvre, film was able to latch onto the light and shadow of his pictures. With the aforementioned films there is a sense of isolation among the darkness and uncertainty of the streets. Many paintings done by Caravaggio place an emphasis on the seemingly infinite darkness; they’re like stages that have been dimly lit knowing that the eye of the viewer will be totally absorbed by the subjects. This is the vitality of chiaroscuro, or light and shadow; a technique that dominates the direction of the eye and thus, the importance of what is being seen. It is hard not to think of Caravaggio when watching those film noirs or even French New Wave films.

The French New Wave was on par with Impressionism in terms of its freshness and vitality as an art movement. This is especially true in Elevator to the Gallows, which is Caravaggesque to the hilt. The film was one of the first entries in the French New Wave. This movie has often been typecast as a film noir; a genre or style (no one seems to know which exactly) that bled American urbanized claustrophobia. Elevator to the Gallows was released in 1958, the year that bookmarked the end of these hard boiled films with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Despite this coincidence, the film does not feel like a hangover from some Americanophile fad. It may take some conventions from film noir, but this film is completely its own, as seen with the musical score. It was composed by jazz artist Miles Davis and it drips with the melancholy existentialism of film noir. This score is well captured in one of the more Caravaggesque scenes in the film: the interrogation of Taverneir, a former paratrooper who has just killed his employer to make it look like a suicide so he can be with the employer’s wife. There’s a catch though: after realizing that he left a grappling hook dangling from a side of the building from which he scaled to his employer’s office, he decides to go back up to get rid of the hook. As he ascends via the elevator, it stops. The electricity has been turned off as the custodian leaves to go home. Taverneir is trapped. Eventually, he is able to get out of the elevator once the electricity has been turned back on. However, for various reasons, Taverneir is interrogated by the police. Crashing cymbals from Davis’ score permeates the scene, as two of the interrogators and Taverneir are lit under bold lighting with an exceedingly dim background. I don’t think I have ever seen a more clear example of chiaroscuro and Caravaggio’s influence on film, than in this scene. You only have to look at Caravaggio’s David and Goliath or The Taking of Christ to see how similar the two scenes are. However, film noir is better able to capture the light and shadow.

"The Taking of Christ," National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

“The Taking of Christ,” National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Indeed, you could really look at almost any film noir from the 40’s or 50’s and see chiaroscuro. It simply isn’t film noir if it doesn’t have that foreboding atmosphere that plays such a pivotal role in the style/genre. It is the atmosphere that is particularly impressive in these films. The bold contrasts between light and shadow make for an entirely haunting rendering of desperation and isolation; a perfect parallel for the characters and their sleazy motives. Often times I look on at a noirs aghast at their expression of faces. Just take Double Indemnity for example. Below, the lighting distinguishes the eyes and the eyebrows of Barbara Stanwyck. There are several lighting techniques used for this means of expression, but one of the few is by using barn doors; leaves that attach to the light fixtures of a camera that blocks all intended light with the exception being around the eyebrows and eyes.

There’s also the precursor of the noirs, French poetic realism. Unlike its cynical counterpart, French poetic realism is more brooding and inexorably tragic. One of the more fascinating French poetic realist films, Pepe le Moko, is like the French Casablanca that is prototype noir, with a leading man who is possibly the father of all the cool actors (Bogart, Dean, McQueen): Jean Gabin. In one of the scenes where he is terrorizing a victim of his (image below), there is something of an echo of Caravaggio. Unfortunately, most of the film was not too noir-esque in its use of chiaroscuro. However, it goes a long way to show that filmmakers will make conscious decisions to expand their cinematic palette. I don’t blame them. Black and white, pardon the paradox, can be just as colorful as color itself, as Martin Scorsese has pointed out. I would even say that dramatic scenes in cinema have probably not been bettered, due to this tension between form and motives that can be seen in film noir.

Probably the most Caravaggesque influenced filmmaker of all would be Martin Scorsese. From a content perspective, Scorsese suffuses many of his films with characters that seem cut and spliced from the morbid depths of Caravaggio’s Rome. Only this time, the setting is different, but still noticeably Italian: the grim streets of New York City. The characters wear their Italian hearts on their sleeves; it’s evident in the way they carry themselves in that characteristically high-flown, emotive way. Scorsese and Caravaggio share the same characters, but the kinship is much deeper than than that; it is one of seamless artistic harmony that has been magnetically latched onto by Scorsese hundreds of years later. But Caravaggio, amazingly enough, was practically anticipating not just Scorsese but film as a medium. What has struck Scorsese is how Caravaggio was choosing the moments in his paintings. Seemingly all of his paintings had engaging compositions that has made Caravaggio more approachable than many of his peers. For example, just look at Supper at Emmaus. The wide open arms of one man and the anticipative elbows of another is framed like a film. The outstretched arms of the man even seem 3Dish. Scorsese and many others would argue that Caravaggio’s staging is entirely modern and, if alive today, he would have definitely been a director.

"Supper at Emmaus," National Gallery, London

“Supper at Emmaus,” National Gallery, London

If you’re still wondering if Caravaggio had an impact on Scorsese why not read what that fascinating man had to say about him:

So then he was there. He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It’s basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St Matthew, but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he made paintings with them.

After watching that scene, it makes me wonder, is Scorsese Caravaggio reincarnated? And if he is, he has impeccable taste in music!

Kidding aside, it’s fascinating to see filmmakers influenced by Caravaggio. I didn’t even get to the German Expressionists, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, or even Derek Jarman’s 1986 film Caravaggio. Beyond being simply influenced by Caravaggio, hopefully it is clear that filmmakers have hugely benefited from his art. Any art form does not exist in a vacuum. Despite this, there’s a good deal of alienation that is being felt towards contemporary art. Would it be possible if art could be influenced by film? Or it is too difficult to translate that medium into painting? I wonder, because, honestly, what will artists and critics think decades from now about the art that is coming out now? There must be some new movement on the horizon that will rid us of the perpetuation of emptiness that is plaguing the art world today. Maybe film will have something to say about that? But, nevertheless, here’s a full length interview with Caravaggio 2.0:


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