Artist for violent times
There is a lot of beheading in Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood. That’s not the doing of Mexican director Jesus Garces Lambert or Italian scriptwriter Laura Allievi. No, it’s mainly down to the subject of this Italian documentary, Milan-born artist Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), who called himself after the town his parents came from. The Bible has a hand in it, too.
Of course the sword-toting, tumultuous Caravaggio lived for a while under the threat of possible beheading after he killed a man during an argument in Rome in 1606 and received a death sentence. He fled to Naples.
The circumstances of this life-changing incident remain a matter of debate. For a fascinating take on it, and all of Caravaggio’s life and work, go to the remarkable 1998 book M by Australian writer Peter Robb.
Art historians link Caravaggio’s potential fate to his paintings, especially the late David With the Head of Goliath (1610), in which the big man’s severed head looks like a self-portrait. Medusa (1597), which shows only the gorgon’s startled, detached head, is the work used in the posters for this movie.
Then there’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599), a timely painting discussed in interesting depth, and The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1609), which some consider his greatest painting, as well as works depicting sacrificial sons, (M) flagellation and crucifixion. And to think it all started, more or less, with Basket of Fruit and The Lute Player, painted when he was 25.
One thing this film does well is to show a painting in whole, then concentrate on certain aspects of it. It encourages us to look at a work of art the way we should, by taking our time, rather than snapping it with our phone camera and rushing on to the next one.
The focus on the concentrated brow of Judith, Jesus’s hand in The Entombment (1603) and Mary’s face in The Death of the Virgin (1601-06) are fine examples. The last was controversial at the time because it depicted an ordinary dead woman and did not show heaven.
The other illuminating technique used, though only briefly, is X-ray footage that shows how Caravaggio altered his paintings as he worked on them. I would have liked to have seen more of this.
This discussion of Caravaggio’s paintings, steered by art historians Claudio Strinati, Mina Gregori and Rossella Vodret, is the highlight of Holofernes; Life of the Party the documentary. The cradle-to-grave account of the artist’s life is less so. It doesn’t add much to our understanding of his mysterious life, of which he left no written record. Biographers have relied heavily on court documents, as he was in trouble quite a bit.
Much of the script is unartistic. “His art is seduction. It acts like a magnet.” There’s too much use of phrases such as “It could be that he …” and “This may allude to …”.
There’s a living modern model for the artist, a handsome man who goes through various trials, and moments of grace, as the narration tells us what was happening to Caravaggio. He is not an actor but a member of the film crew, chosen largely for his anonymity.
He doesn’t speak but Caravaggio’s voice does come in, courtesy of Italian music star Manuel Agnelli. The words, though, are constructed by the scriptwriter. The line that rings true, in the context of this documentary, is: “I let my works do the talking for me.”
Some of the people behind this film made the recent Raphael: The Lord of the Arts. Both films were brought to Australian screens by Sydneybased Sharmill Films, which also distributed the delightful art comedy-drama The Square.
When the Avengers rule the roost, it’s good that there can still be a place in cinemas for films about art. I like the Avengers movies but it’s reassuring to know there’s still a life for different films for different audiences. Life of the Party is the third movie from American wife-and-husband team Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, following Tammy (2014) and The Boss (2016). They co-wrote the script, she’s the star, he’s the director. He also has a humorous cameo as an Uber driver.
This is an enjoyable sorority house comedy that also has moments of tenderness. At such times it shows how wisdom can be passed between generations, from older to younger and vice-versa.
The generational gap is bridged when Deanna (McCarthy), dumped by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh), decides to return to college to finish the archeology degree she abandoned two decades ago when she became pregnant. The result of that pregnancy, Maddie (Molly Gordon), is also at the college, in her final year.
What follows cleverly jumps between Deanna being an embarrassment to her daughter and Dee-Rock, as she becomes, being liked by the other students, especially handsome Jack (Luke Benward). But it’s not a straight line from full-time mum to college maverick. There are ups and downs, steps forward and backward.
McCarthy is fun to watch, as usual. There are some laugh-out-loud set pieces, such as a 1970s disco party. My favourite is when Deanna and her best friend and Dan and his new girlfriend meet a divorce mediator. The rule of the room is that everyone must address the moderator, not each other. So she’s called a son of a bitch a lot.
Australia’s Jacki Weaver has a supporting role as Deanna’s mum (and Stephen Root is her dad). It’s worth seeing just for their loud discussion, when Deanna comes to their house to tell them her life has fallen apart, about the qualities of a ham sandwich. A gun is produced.
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Melissa McCarthy with Molly Gordon, top left, and Jacki Weaver in